Lloyd Fox / McClatchy Tribune
TAMPA, Fla. â€“ Arguably the best player on the NFLâ€™s best defense is a man who actually pauses and thinks before he talks, so when Troy Polamalu says something in his trademark soft voice, the words resonate importance.
And right now Polamalu is talking about the Arizona Cardinals offense and sounding worried.
â€œThey would be tough for any defense especially a defense like us,â€ Polamalu says of the Cardinals. â€œIf we had a Tampa 2 style of defense, we could give up 7 or 8 yards, every once in a while even give up a 15-yarder and it would be no problem. â€œBut with us, we have a smothering mentality, so anytime you give up a big play, itâ€™s hard to recover. And they can make big play after big play. It can be tough.â€
It can be classic.
Super Bowl XLIII will attract hundreds of millions of viewers on Sunday, but keeping those eyes glued to the broadcast might be as simple as watching the Steelers defense and Cardinals offense do their thing.
It promises to be strength against strength. Man against man.
Offense versus defense played at heights not seen every NFL Sunday.
â€œItâ€™s hard not to think of them as the best defense in the NFL when all the stats say they are,â€ Arizona running back Edgerrin James said. â€œThose guys know how to keep people out of the end zone. They know how to frustrate offenses. They know how to do what they do. That is a championship defense.â€
Many words come to mind when describing the Steelersâ€™ defense. Dominating is one of those.
The Steelers led the NFL in total defense in 2008. They led the NFL in pass defense. They led the NFL in scoring defense. And they failed to become the first team since the 1970 merger to lead in all four categories by which defenses are measured only because the Minnesota Vikings allowed three fewer rushing yards per game than Pittsburgh.
And you wonder why Pittsburgh is in the Super Bowl?
â€œI think itâ€™s true in any sport: Defense wins championships,â€ linebacker Larry Foote said. â€œWe know what theyâ€™re capable of doing. If we can slow those guys down, our chances of winning are going to increase. I like our chances.â€
Sounds like a done deal except for one thing: The Arizona offense is pretty darn impressive in its own right, averaging 26.7 points per game.
Quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 4,000 yards in the regular season and heâ€™s become more accurate in the postseason, becoming the second-highest rated quarterback in playoff history behind Bart Starr and ahead of guys like Joe Montana.
The receivers corps has not one, not two, but three 1,000-yard receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston, and Anquan Boldin, who authored his fourth 1,000-yard season despite missing four games.
Boldin and Fitzgerald, big, strong and physical, have been as easy to tackle as eight-foot spiny cactus plants.
â€œFitz is going to get his catches and Boldin is going to get hit and keep going,â€ James said. â€œA lot of times, defenses play perfect, get the right call and right play, but somebody will just make a great play, anyway. Thatâ€™s how those guys are.â€
A running game
Airzonaâ€™s offense was one-dimensional throughout the season and then James, who was benched for 10 games from October to December, was suddenly rediscovered as a starter. The move signaled a renaissance for the Cardinals running attack.
Arizona, last in the NFL averaging 73.6 rush yards per game in the regular season, is averaging 111 rushing yards per game in the postseason.
â€œWe have run the ball successfully in the postseason,â€ Cardinals guard Deuce Lutui said. â€œIn our game plan we plan to do anything necessary to attack their defense, which is very challenging. And that includes running.â€
So the question as Super Bowl Sunday looms is not just can the Steelers beat Arizona or can the Cardinals pull the upset, but rather, what truly wins championships? Is it stifling defense? Or high-tech offense?
â€œSometimes you get the bear, sometimes the bear gets you,â€ Foote said. â€œWe know theyâ€™re going to make plays. Weâ€™re going to make plays, too. Weâ€™ll see what happens Sunday.â€
By Armando Salguero/ McClatchy Tribune