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01-24-2009, 01:25 AM
Super Bowl matchup: WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Steelers Secondary
Posted: January 23, 2009

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RealScouts, Sporting News' team of former NFL scouts, will break down the key player-vs.-player matchups for Super Bowl 43. Today, they examine Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald vs. the Steelers' secondary:

Fitzgerald has certainly made a case for himself this postseason as the best receiver in the game, and if not the best, certainly the most impactful. His combination of size, strength, and speed make him a matchup nightmare. His uncanny body control, sure hands, and ability to adjust to the ball in the air make him impossible to cover at times, and a serious threat even to double teams. The Steelers play true team defense where pressure and coverage work together to shut down even the most prolific attacks.

Fitzgerald poses two big problems for the Steelers. He's obviously a vertical threat down the field, but he's also a horizontal threat running shallow crosses across the field. In the NFC Championship Game, Arizona ran 20 pass plays that required throws of 10 yards or less. The Cardinals thrive on gaining yards after the catch in the passing game. While it's easy to say the Steelers have to double team Fitzgerald, there is the matter of two other receivers named Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston, who are also 1,000-yard receivers. They must be accounted for as well. So while Pittsburgh will have to commit a second defender at times, they will do much more in terms of mixing their coverages in order to confuse the reads of QB Kurt Warner and alter what Fitz does downfield.

Look for the Steelers to show a lot of what we'll call umbrella coverage. Pittsburgh will play the corners off, giving Fitzgerald a cushion. This will make it hard for Warner to determine whether he is seeing a quarters or two-deep zone, or if he's seeing what they call two-man, off man coverage. Often, the Steelers will disguise coverage, switching in the middle of the snap or just after the snap. It will be critical for Fitz and Warner to make the same read of the coverage on each play. Warner must also make accurate throws against this

Fitzgerald could counter off coverage by cutting his route off and running a quick slant or short cross over the middle of the field. On these horizontal routes, the Steelers will need a leverage player on the opposite side of the field. As Fitzgerald comes across the field, the Steelers will look to collision him after the catch, much the way they did against the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game. Safety Troy Polamalu will be the guy on Fitzgerald when he comes across the middle, which will make for some tough sledding. For this reason, expect Fitzgerald to run more vertical routes, but against a cushion, he will have to test the middle.

The Steelers will also mix in some press coverage. Both DeShea Townsend and Bryant McFadden can be physical players and will work to disrupt the timing of Fitzgerald's routes. When they do press, it will likely be behind some sort of zone blitz pressure or full blitz on Warner, forcing him to get rid of the ball quickly, before Fitz can release and get deep. The Cardinals have the advantage here, however, as Warner does a good job of reading blitz and getting the ball out of his hand, and if Pittsburgh is overplaying Fitzgerald, he won't hesitate to go to Boldin or Breaston.

The Cardinals believe they can get everything done they need to in the passing game with their top three receivers, so you will see a lot more players in protection, rather than the four and five wide sets they ran earlier in the season. Boldin will be near full health for this game, and with coverage rolled to Fitzgerald, he will align on the opposite side of the field against single coverage and be the target on more vertical routes. With the run game working well, look for Warner to work the play action pass game and throw over the top to Boldin. If they connect on those plays, then Fitzgerald effectively wins the matchup.

Near the goal line, Fitzgerald will create problems for the Steelers as well. With Polamalu roaming free within the scheme, safety Ryan Clark must be the help on Fitzgerald, who's size, strength, leaping ability, and reliable hands make him the top red zone threat for the Cards. Clark has to read Warner quickly and get in position to either help the corner with Fitzgerald, or look for the tight end in the middle of the field. Fitzgerald is always the first read, but expect Warner to try and move the ball around in the red zone a bit to create more balanced looks from the coverage.

Boldin will align on the opposite side of the field from Fitzgerald and run at the second defender assigned to Fitzgerald, which will most likely be Clark. If the safety still goes to Fitz, then Warner throws to Boldin across the middle of the end zone. If the safety picks up Boldin, then Warner will take his chances on the fade to Fitzgerald against single coverage.

Advantage: Fitzgerald