LeBeau's shell game likely to trick Cardinals

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Early in the week, when it was apparent that not enough life forms were making Super Bowl predictions, officials at Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory arranged for Shelly the sea turtle to pick a winner by posting logos of the Steelers and Arizona Cardinals on the glass frontage of her tank.

I know. Thank God for these people.

After hours of deliberation, most of it on the teams' relative yards-per-catch ratios, Shelly swam up to the Cardinals logo and then rolled over, which I'm guessing is the ectothermic wagering signal for take the under.

Much as I generally avoid disagreements with reptiles, I think Shelly's wrong on both points.

There are ways Ken Whisenhunt's team can win Super Bowl XLIII tonight, but all things being equal, the Steelers appear to be better at prevention than anyone in the league, which is why Larry Fitzgerald might have answered more questions here this week than any player at any Super Bowl.

If this is going to be the game in which Fitzgerald, the definitive contemporary pass catcher, breaks Jerry Rice's record for touchdowns in a single postseason, the Steelers will be in trouble. He has five in three games. Rice had six in 1988. If Fitzgerald has what for him is an average playoff game -- eight catches for 140 yard and two touchdowns -- the Steelers will have a hard time winning.

That's why I'm not sure the approach hinted at by linebacker Larry Foote is relevant.

"We've got to make them one-dimensional," Foote said in the Steelers' final media availability. "We've got to completely stop the run."

Normally, the Cardinals will do that on their own. They're not the worst running team in the league for nothin'. If Arizona offensive coordinator Todd Haley is going to try to establish a ground game, the Steelers should be preparing a nice Thank You card. The Cardinals are more likely planning on getting Fitzgerald the ball outside of the big white numbers painted on the lawn at Raymond James Stadium.

When Fitzgerald is running outside the numbers, he's close to unstoppable because he doesn't have to worry about someone coming off the sideline to defend him.

The charge for Dick LeBeau's defense is to force Fitzgerald toward the middle of the field, where he'll encounter multiple defenders and even multiple coverages.

In the middle of the field, where LeBeau can create a lot of traffic that includes a Mack Truck named Ryan Clark, it will be a lot more difficult for No. 11 to "catch the ball at its highest point," a phrase he has used so often this week. You knew he could jump, but 20, 30 feet in the air? He means catch it at hishighest point. But to generate that traffic, the Steelers will have to be conservative in their blitz packages.

It's better, it says here, to challenge Arizona gunslinger Kurt Warner in the secondary than with pressure.

"You don't play in this league as long as he's played and have the success that he's had without being able to handle anything the defense does," LeBeau said of Warner, the 37-year-old Arena League graduate who has been as precise in this postseason as he was when he led the St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV. "He's comfortable against the pressure, comfortable against max coverage. Our feeling is that offenses in general don't play as well against pressure, so we'll be trying to search for a way to do that."

That's a long way from, "Here we come!"

Warner was sacked only 28 times in the regular season, 18 times fewer than Ben Roethlisberger. In the NFC title game, the blitz-accomplished Philadelphia Eagles reached Warner only twice, the Falcons and Panthers only once between them.

Warner's release is among the quickest, his recognition almost instantaneous. There doesn't seem much point in employing half the defense in trying to break his pocket when you've got Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Steve Breaston, three 1,000-yard receivers, streaking through an underpopulated secondary.

The best way to dilute Warner's impact is to keep him on the sideline, a responsibility that falls to a Bruce Arians offense that remains a little too pass happy. Arians believes Roethlisberger is the best player on the field, and the urgency for No. 7 to be better in this Super Bowl than in his first, though greatly overstated, could be the difference itself.

"Ben's a different player this time around," Mike Tomlin said this week. "His place in the group is different. He's not the young guy who could screw it up."

No, now he's the experienced guy who could screw it up, but I'd be very surprised if he doesn't play well.

"Performance always defines preparation," Tomlin said. "If we play well in this game, our preparation will be great. If we don't play well, it wasn't good enough."

I think it's good enough, and so are the Steelers.

Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 24.

Shelly's going to be one disappointed sea turtle.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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