Grading the Arizona Cardinals Defense in Super Bowl XLIII

The Arizona Cardinals defense had a tough task heading into Super Bowl XLIII and even though they'd been playing much better in the playoffs, some still wondered if they'd be up to the task. The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't boast an explosive offense but the mix of Ben Roethlisber, Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Willie Parker are a formidable unit, when working together. Overall the Cardinals defense, which had been allowing an average of 316 yards per game in the playoffs and 331.5 yards per game in the regular, held the Steelers offense to just 292 yards. Overall the Steelers offense averaged 5.0 yards per play, converted 40% of the third downs and 20 points (remember that the defense scored a touchdown).

Run Defense
Attempts 26
Yards 58
Yards Per Rush 2.2

When we spelled out our keys to game last week, one of them was to shut down the Steelers running game and put the game on Ben Roethlisberger's shoulders. For the most part the Cardinals did exactly that. Willie Parker had little to no running room all night long and the Steelers offense sputtered for most of the game. Steelers' running backs were dropped for a one yard gain or less on 12 attempts and seldom used, reserve linebacker Monty Beisel played a big role their success. The Cardinals played with an extra linebacker on rushing downs and Beisel stepped up with five tackles (he had 20 throughout the entire regular season), three of which were for a one yard gain or less. Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith had good games combining for eight tackles, five of which were of the one yard or less variety. Chike Okeafer and Karlos Dansby also logged multiple tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage. The biggest negative play of the night might have come from Gabe Watson though. With the Steelers facing a 3rd-and-2 from the two yard line, Roethlisberger ran a QB draw and Watson fought through a block and dropped Big Ben for a one yard loss. The result was the Steelers kicking a field goal and taking a 20-7 lead, but a touchdown in that situation would have made the mountain much tougher to climb. The Cardinals front seven was very good all night long of being able to shoot gaps and disrupt Steelers' running plays before they had time to develop.

Pass Defense
Comp/Att/Int 20/30/1
Passing Yards 256
Yds Per Attempt 8.5
Sacks 2

With the front seven stymied the Steelers' running game the pressure was on the secondary and for the most part, their performance was disappointing. Ben Roethlisberger doesn't make it easy on a secondary with his ability to scramble around and by time with his legs, but they always seemed to be a step behind. Ben completed 70% of his passes and averaged 8.5 yards per attempt on route to a QB rating of just over 93. The Steelers managed 12 first downs through the air and the passing game was a big reason why the Steelers converted 40% of their third downs. On several instances the Cardinals were able to pressure Ben throughout the game but his ability to break the pocket and buy time with his escapability was something that the Cardinals couldn't counter. In order to understand the pressure that his abilities put on a defense let's look at a play on the Steelers second offensive series. It's a third-and-10 and the Cardinals defense is trying to get off the field and keep the Steelers lead at three points. Ben takes the snap in a shotgun formation trips to his right (top side of formation) and tight end Heath Miller lined up to his left. The Cardinals get decent pressure but about three seconds after the snap, mayhem breaks loose:

 

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That's a lot to digest at one time so let's break down a couple of different elements. First look at the clock as the play progresses. Ben's got the ball in his hands for at least seven seconds and runs from the middle of the field to the bottom hash mark and then pack to the upper hash mark. He only gets touched once by Antonio Smith who gets an arm on him and actually spins him around at the 4:03 mark. The other guy to watch in these pictures is Antrel Rolle (highlighted by red box). Early in the play he's backpedaling like he's playing in a zone but once Ben starts his scramble, he pursues. By the end of the play, Rolle is with in a yard of Roethlisberger but he leaves Adrian Wilson all alone on the bottom side of the field with multiple receivers. 

None of that is meant to condemn any one person or even the group as a whole, but it was a level of discipline that they weren't ready for and they'll have to place a special emphasis on it during the next four to five months. The defense as a whole competed all night long though and overall they held the Steelers under 300 yards and limited their offense to 20 points. What grade would you give the Cardinals defense? How can they improve during the off season and what do they need to improve on the most?

 

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