By BOB LABRIOLA
Steelers.com TAMPA – Just how big is the matchup of the Cardinals' passing attack vs. a Steelers defense that came up 55 rushing yards short of finishing the season ranked No. 1 in the four major statistical categories?
Well, this being Super Bowl week, you knew the media was going to leave no stone unturned when it came to breaking down every angle to this issue, and so it was that Troy Polamalu was getting questions about his hair, specifically about the relationship between his demeanor and his hair style.
"I was in the grocery store one time," Polamalu began with an earnest look on his face, "and my rubber band broke and my hair fell out. I just flipped. I saw a lady carrying her baby, and I tackled her, and the next thing I know, I'm in handcuffs."
Well played by the Steelers' All-Pro safety, who suckered Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco into a fourth quarter interceptions in the AFC Championship Game with the same aplomb he used on that reporter. And the smile on his face reflected another job well done.
But seriously, the ability of the Steelers defense to handle a passing attack triggered by Kurt Warner and containing a triumvirate of 1,000-yard receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston figures to go a long way toward determining whether it's Mike Tomlin or Ken Whisenhunt getting the postgame Lombardi handoff from Commissioner Roger Goodell.
"He is the same Kurt Warner that he has always been," said Tomlin. "He makes quick decisions, he doesn't make mistakes. He absolutely tortures you when he recognizes pressure and he gets the ball out of his hands."
It's going to be incumbent upon the Steelers to disguise their pressure and the direction from which it will be attacking Warner, because the Philadelphia Eagles can attest to the hazards of failing to accomplish that. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson dialed up the pressure frequently in the NFC Championship Game, and Warner merely put up numbers allowing him to finish the afternoon with a passer rating of 145.7. All because it wasn't disguised even as well as Polamalu's hair story.
"This isn't the first high-potent offense Warner's been a part of," said Tomlin, who got several up-close looks at St. Louis' Greatest Show on Turf as the secondary coach in Tampa Bay. "I think the common denominator probably has something to do with that. He's a good player. It's never too big for him. He's very cerebral, and he puts the ball in guys' hands at the appropriate time."
Those guys to whom Tomlin refers are difference-makers in their own rights, and none more so than Larry Fitzgerald.
Such is the spotlight on the postseason that if a poll had been conducted on Dec. 15 to determine the NFL's best receivers, Fitzgerald probably would have found himself below Randy Moss, Steve Smith and Andre Johnson. Conduct that same poll today, and Fitzgerald's is the first name off everybody's tongue.
"Larry Fitzgerald is quite simply the best in the world, down the field in one-on-one situations," said Tomlin. "If we're going to be successful, we need to limit the number of times we are downfield with him one-on-one because he will come up with the football. The tape shows us that."
There is no such thing as a videotape that shows an antidote for Fitzgerald, but during the run-up to the game Ike Taylor has been identified frequently as being an integral component for whatever answers the Steelers defense can conjure.
"This is probably the best scenario you can get as a secondary, going against three receivers with 1,000 yards," said Taylor. "This is the best stage to try to display what you can do."
That's the thing about this Cardinals' passing attack – it's no one-trick pony. After Fitzgerald, there comes Boldin and Breaston, both accomplished players in their own rights. Boldin is a strong, powerful, tough receiver, while Breaston has grown into a master of the underneath-type routes characteristic of No. 3 receivers in the NFL.
"Anquan Boldin is a very tough and accomplished receiver, very difficult to get on the ground," said Tomlin. "He is strong, powerful, as is really Larry Fitzgerald, and they are complimented by Breaston, who is a rock-solid football player."
But with all due respect to the other components in this Cardinals offense, it is Fitzgerald who is the most dangerous of all.
He was the one who scored the first Arizona touchdown in the franchise's first home playoff game since 1947 to get things off to a flying start during this postseason, and he was the one who caught three touchdown passes in the victory over the Eagles that punched the Cardinals' ticket to Super Bowl XLIII.
"If you get down the field one-on-one with him, he's going to come back with the football," said Tomlin. "He is the best in the world at that, bar none. He's a talent. He's big. He's strong. He's got great hand-eye coordination. He's big and he plays big. He plays the ball above our level. Very few defensive backs are 6-foot-3, so you've got a 6-3 wideout with strong hands who plays the ball above our level. You have an issue and a problem. It's something we are going to have to deal with, no doubt."
Dealing with Arizona's aerial attack
By BOB LABRIOLA