Steelers' defense to earn more respect tonight

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TAMPA, Fla. -- This probably will come as a shock: The Arizona Cardinals are playing the respect card in Super Bowl XLIII. "People have said they don't like the fact that the Cardinals are in the Super Bowl," defensive end Bertrand Berry said, sniffing. Teammates are convinced that goes to the highest levels of the land. "President Obama actually wants Pittsburgh to win!" defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said, wide-eyed and offended.

So the Cardinals say they are on a mission.


The Steelers-Cardinals game tonight won't have anything to do with any disrespect the Cardinals are feeling. It will have everything to do with the Steelers' defense, a defense that is playing for a storied place in NFL history.

Now we're talking motivation.

"We've done a lot of great things this season," Steelers linebacker James Farrior was saying as two weeks of Super Bowl hype started to wind down. "But if we don't win this game, it won't mean a hill of beans. You've got to win a championship to be considered great."

The defense already has been compared to some of the game's best. Not so much to the incomparable Steel Curtain, of course. Even Farrior and his pals would admit that's a bit of a stretch. That defense sent four players to the Hall of Fame. How many will get there from this bunch? One, maybe? Safety Troy Polamalu?

But the Steelers' defense will take its proper place alongside the fabulous defenses of the 1985 Chicago Bears and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens if it gets it done against a great Cardinals offense and wins the franchise's second Super Bowl in four years.

And it will get it done.

The Cardinals won't score more than 13 points.

It won't be easy, for sure. You've been reading all of the reasons for a fortnight. Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is unstoppable. Quarterback Kurt Warner is a future Hall of Famer. Running back Edgerrin James is a dynamic threat again. Wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston had 1,000-yard seasons. Fitzgerald is unstoppable ...

Yes, that's worth mentioning twice.

"Can he be stopped? I don't know," Polamalu said. "Has he been stopped? No."

Cornerback Ike Taylor will give it a try. Like everyone here, he is amazed by Fitzgerald's postseason numbers: 23 catches for 419 yards and five touchdowns in three games. "He's breaking Jerry Rice records," Taylor pointed out, correctly.

Still, Taylor will show up.

"I've never backed down from a challenge yet."

Taylor won't have to do it alone. He'll get plenty of safety help from Polamalu or Ryan Clark. Beyond that, he's counting on a fierce pass rush from linebackers James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons getting to Warner quickly. Don't be surprised if Harrison gets another strip sack or Woodley gets a pair of sacks for the fourth consecutive postseason game or Timmons gets turned loose by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

A pass rush is the only way to stop Fitzgerald. Taylor and Polamalu or Clark will have perfect coverage on him at times and he's still going to outleap or outmaneuver them to make the catch because of his extraordinary physical skills. He will get his catches tonight, maybe even make a splash play or two. But when Harrison and the others get after Warner? Warner won't even remotely resemble a Hall of Famer. He'll be intercepted at least twice under the kind of duress he hasn't faced in this postseason.

"Any quarterback is like that," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "[Warner] will kill you if you let him sit back there. You definitely have to put pressure on him all the time."

That's what this Steelers defense does best. That's why it was ranked No. 1 in overall defense and pass defense all season. But here's the beauty of it: It also stops the run. It will stop James and fellow ball-toter Tim Hightower tonight.

Thanks to a resurgence by James -- who was on the bench, begging to be traded not all that long ago -- the Cardinals have become less one-dimensional and less reliant on Warner and his three big-time receivers. James rushed for a total of 203 yards and a touchdown in the playoff wins against Philadelphia, Carolina and Atlanta. It's no coincidence the Cardinals averaged almost 32 points in those games.

But James will have no better success against the Steelers' defense than Baltimore's Willis McGahee had in the AFC championship game: 20 carries for 60 yards. It would be nice to say he'll do no better than San Diego's Darren Sproles the week before (11 carries for 15 yards), but that's asking for a bit much. The real question is this: Will James finish the game healthy? Sproles did, McGahee didn't.

Mr. McGahee, meet Mr. Clark ...

Clark -- unanimously voted the "hardest-hitting safety in football" by his adoring teammates -- is another of the many interested in how the defense will be remembered historically. He knows how he will remember it.

"I've never seen a group of guys care so much," he said. "I've never heard a bunch of teammates apologize to each other so much when something goes wrong. It's not just after we give up a touchdown. It can be a field goal and guys are coming to the sideline, saying, 'My bad. My bad. My bad ... ' "

There won't be many "My bads" tonight.

Steelers 27, Cardinals 13.

Ron Cook can be reached at .


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