TAMPA, Fla. -- Rod Woodson may have been the best defensive back to ever play the game, so he knows a little about receivers and passing offenses. And he thinks his former team could be in trouble on Sunday.
The Steelers had the No. 1 defense in the regular season, including the No. 1 defense against the pass, yet they have not seen anything like what the Arizona Cardinals could throw at them in the Super Bowl, Woodson said.
"I think it's going to be a tough task in the secondary for the Steelers just to match up on a play-by-play basis and shut those receivers down," Woodson said yesterday. "To me, this is the toughest draw the Steelers had in the NFC.
"Playing against Philly, I think they could out-tough the Eagles. Playing against the Arizona Cardinals against spread-out football, who can find all their receivers? And Kurt Warner's doing an outstanding job. I think it's a tough draw for them."
Woodson made the NFL's 75th anniversary team, the Steelers' 75th anniversary team and will be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday. He works for the NFL Network, where his opinions often are sharp, but honest.
He did not pick the Cardinals to win the Super Bowl, not yet anyway, but he did say they could pick the Steelers apart. Arizona features three 1,000-yard receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. They helped Warner complete 67.1 percent of his passes this season. In Steelers franchise history, there have been two 1,000-yard receivers in one season only once, in 2002 with Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress.
"I think this is the toughest match the Steelers are going to face all year," Woodson said. "The way you beat a 3-4 is you spread them out and you hit them in the seams. That's exactly how Arizona plays, and that's how they played them last year without Anquan Boldin."
The Cardinals beat the Steelers, 21-14, in Arizona on Sept. 30, 2007. Warner and Matt Leinart combined for only 215 passing yards and one touchdown that day.
"If the Steelers are going to win this football game, the secondary -- the back end -- and the linebackers in coverage have to play the best they played all season long," Woodson predicted. "And if they can do that, they can win the football game. But if they have a bad day, it's over for the Steelers."
The Steelers often had trouble with spread offenses in the early part of this decade, but they've tightened up since Dick LeBeau's return as coordinator in 2004.
"You have to think ... a little advantage has to go to the Cardinals just for the fact they can spread you out, they can throw the football," Woodson said. "I can see them going to their two-minute [strategy] in their first series. What that does, you don't have the whole blitz package for Dick LeBeau at hand because you can't get into all that, the checks."
Woodson made it clear that he's pulling for the Steelers to win and just offering an opinion. He long ago overcame the biting disappointment when he felt the Steelers low-balled him in contract negotiations and he signed in the summer of 1997 with the 49ers, who moved him to safety.
"I had a little sour taste in my mouth for about two years," Woodson said. "They had to do what was best for the team. One of the main guys who was part of that, he left a couple years later, that's when I finally said, 'OK.' "
Woodson still blames former football operations director Tom Donahoe for not re-signing him, but it really was a joint decision that included coach Bill Cowher and the Rooneys.
"Pittsburgh was a great place to play, a great place to learn about pro football, the history of it, the fan base of the Steelers, and the teachers who were there -- Chuck Noll and Tony Dungy when I first got there ... and Rod Rust came in and was a mentor. Then those guys left and Bill Cowher and Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers came in. I had some great teachers, all in Pittsburgh who helped me out a great deal.
"Chuck Noll told me my rookie year, this game is 85 percent mental. It's true."
It's why he spoke about their chances yesterday with his head, not his heart.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published January 28, 2009 5:00 AM