By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers.com Usually, the playoffs are an extension of a team's regular season. But sometimes it becomes an opportunity for a do-over.
Consider the Arizona Cardinals defense in the latter category, because the unit that finished the 2008 regular season ranked No. 19 in yards allowed, No. 16 in rushing, No. 22 in passing, No. 19 in interceptions, No. 20 in sacks, No. 28 in third-down efficiency and No. 28 in scoring has been nothing but spectacular in these playoffs so far.
"Defensively, they are flat getting after people," said Coach Mike Tomlin about the Cardinals in the postseason. "They are plus-nine for the playoffs in turnover ratio. If you are sitting at plus-nine, you are going to the Super Bowl and everybody you play goes home. That's quite simple."
The Cardinals run of takeaways began in the Wild Card Round when they intercepted rookie quarterback Matt Ryan twice and returned a fumble for a touchdown that could be considered the difference in their 30-24 win. Maybe without that defensive touchdown, the Cardinals don't advance to the Super Bowl.
In the Divisional Round, they intercepted Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme five times and stripped him once and recovered the fumble. Then against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, they intercepted Donovan McNabb once and recovered two fumbles. That means 12 takeaways, including eight interceptions, in three playoff games for a team that recorded 30 in the 16-game regular season.
"They are playing rock solid on the back end and the ring leader is (safety) Adrian Wilson," said Tomlin. "He is good away from the line of scrimmage, he is good at the line of scrimmage, and he is good blitzing. He is a top quality football player and playmaker for them.
"At linebacker, Karlos Dansby, Gerald Hayes and Chike Okeafor are a very good group, and all of them have distinct talents. Dansby is great on his feet as a sideline to sideline tackler. Hayes is a tough inside linebacker and very stout against the run, and Okeafor is a great pass rusher, particularly when they get in their sub-package and they bring him off the edge. Up front, Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith lead the charge."
Bertrand Berry and Smith lead Arizona in the playoffs with two sacks apiece, and cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Ralph Brown have two interceptions apiece.
Coaches will say that sacks and takeaways come in bunches, but the Cardinals have supplemented those with some solid play in other areas. For example, teams are averaging 77.3 yards rushing per game in the playoffs against the Cardinals.
"They get after it. They play with a great deal of energy. They get people to the ball. They play with emotion," said Tomlin about the Arizona run defense in the playoffs. "And equally important as that is, that they are gap sound. They are in appropriate gaps, where they are suppose to be. They insert guys like Adrian Wilson into the box and they put them in virtually unblockable positions. When they do that, he generally makes the plays."
A tougher brand of 'D'
By BOB LABRIOLA