Larry Fitzgerald just wants his space
He has a fat new contract and numbers that few receivers have had. But what former Pitt All-American Larry Fitzgerald doesn't have these days as he prepares to face the Steelers is the chance to flourish or the QB (yet) that will help him return to the heights of 2008.
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TEMPE, Ariz. -- In the desert valley, where only the sun shines more than Larry Fitzgerald, the Arizona Cardinals are desperately trying to find room for their star wide receiver. Not in their offense. Just on the football field.
Maybe something like the night in Tampa, Fla., nearly three years ago when he had so much space on one game-changing play he nearly denied the Steelers a sixth Super Bowl trophy.
Not that Fitzgerald has ever needed a whole lot of room to maneuver. He didn't need a lot of space when he was at Pitt, not when he caught 92 passes in 2003 to set a Big East Conference record that still stands.
And he hasn't needed it for most of his dazzling career in the National Football League, where he is the only player to catch 90 or more passes in five of his first seven seasons.
Space is something most receivers need to make an impact. Not Fitzgerald. All he needs is the ball. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called him "the best in the world" at what he does, and what he does is catch the ball in traffic as well as, if not better than, any wide receiver in league history.
"He's a guy who knows how to play the ball as well as anyone I've ever seen when the ball goes up in the air," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior, who is in his 15th NFL season.
Still, something strange is going on in the desert. Fitzgerald has only 27 catches and just two touchdowns in the first five games for the Cardinals, surprisingly low numbers for a player who has 67 career touchdowns in just 113 games. There are several reasons, none more tangible than what Fitzgerald will discover again today when the sputtering Cardinals (1-4) play the Steelers (4-2) at University of Phoenix Stadium: The traffic around him has increased exponentially, kind of like rush hour on Interstate 10.
Simply put, teams aren't going to let Fitzgerald beat them. They are content, for now, to give quarterback Kevin Kolb, running back Beanie Wells and receiver Early Doucet all the room they need to perform. But they are going to surround the former Pitt star as though they were his bodyguards.
"You still do things to move him around, which we've always done, not so much to get Larry open but to get defenses to play us honest," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was explaining the other day. "We haven't been able to do enough things consistently that we've been able to make some of those plays.
"His numbers are decent. There are a lot of things we're working through with a new quarterback and young receivers that we're hopefully getting better at. That will help."
It is a hard image to forget: Larry Fitzgerald running free over the middle, a cornerback out of position, splitting the defense for a long touchdown.
And it almost became one that would have been difficult to swallow because it occurred late in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla.
"I think I screamed, 'Oh no,' when he caught the ball and was streaking down the field," Farrior said. "I didn't see our safeties anywhere. I knew he was going to score."
Fitzgerald took advantage of a mental mistake by cornerback Ike Taylor, who was supposed to play inside coverage, and caught a deep slant from quarterback Kurt Warner to score on a 64-yard touchdown that gave the Cardinals a 23-21 lead with 2:37 remaining.
If Ben Roethlisberger hadn't led the Steelers on an eight-play, 78-yard drive and thrown the miraculous touchdown to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds remaining, Fitzgerald's catch-and-run would have been the defining moment of that Super Bowl. Instead, it is Holmes' catch that will forever be the signature of the game.
"That time brings a bad memory so I kind of put it in the back of my mind," Fitzgerald said the other day after practice, picking at a salad inside the Cardinals training facility. "You never want to get to that point and lose. Pittsburgh, they can feel our pain, dealing with the Super Bowl last year, being right there, a play away."
Indeed, despite trailing, 31-25, after a Mason Crosby field goal with 2:07 remaining, the Steelers were nearly in an identical situation against the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV last season as they were against the Cardinals. But, unlike what happened in Tampa, Roethlisberger threw three consecutive incompletions to Mike Wallace to end the game.
"I know they understand what it feels like to lose a heartbreaking game like that," Fitzgerald said. "It's one you want to put on the back burner. It was a nice ride, but let's try to do it again."
It is going to be difficult for the Cardinals, even with Fitzgerald.
Despite leading the team with 27 catches, 427 yards and two touchdowns, Fitzgerald is getting more attention than Lady Gaga in an opposing secondary. That's because the Cardinals don't have a receiver like Anquan Boldin or even Steve Breaston to take some of the pressure away from him.
Boldin left after Super Bowl XLIII to join the Baltimore Ravens, and Breaston (Woodland Hills) signed in free agency with the Kansas City Chiefs when the lockout ended in the summer.
That's one of the reasons Fitzgerald lobbied hard in training camp to sign Braylon Edwards or Malcolm Floyd. Lee Evans was available, too, though he ultimately went to the Ravens.
"I don't think there's any question teams are trying to take away Larry Fitzgerald," said Whisenhunt, who inherited Fitzgerald when he took the job in 2007 after serving three years as the Steelers offensive coordinator. "I think that's because he has a lot more attention and production now.
"When we first came here to Arizona, everybody knew what Larry was, but nobody had seen him do it consistently. He had a big year, but after we went to the Super Bowl and the next year he had another big year, now people are saying you have to stop Larry Fitzgerald, and rightfully so. The guy's numbers and everything he's done have been top of the league."
After an ugly 34-10 loss in Minnesota, Fitzgerald's frustration over his lack of space in opposing defenses got the best of his normally placid demeanor.
"Look at Green Bay, they have a plethora of talented guys," Fitzgerald said. "When you have so many things teams have to worry about defensively, you're going to get open, you're going to get the big shots for your offense.
"Right now, teams are saying, 'Fitzgerald is over here, we're not going to let him beat us. We're going to do whatever it takes to hold him down and not allow him to do that.' In years, past, when I had 'Q,' even last year with Steve [Breaston], defenses approached it a little differently. There were times when I could find some [space]. Now those times are few and far between."
Fitzgerald was more passive the other day when discussing the same subject. He said his earlier comments weren't intended to be critical of his current teammates and he would "never throw anyone under the bus."
"Week in and week out, teams present different challenges," Fitzgerald said. "Pittsburgh is going to do what they do. They really don't change based on the personnel they're facing. You saw them play Andre Johnson and Anquan Bolden. They don't really change. Ike [Taylor] is going to follow around the best receiver, Ike's going to follow me around. You kind of know what to expect. It's going to be a hard-fought game. They're not going to beat themselves."
And they're not going to let Larry Fitzgerald beat them, either.
Make no mistake, Fitzgerald is not some Larry-come-lately.
He is the fifth receiver in NFL history to catch 90 or more passes in four consecutive seasons and the only player in league history to catch 90 or more passes five times in his first seven seasons.
What's more, his 67 touchdown catches rank fifth in league history among active players, even though he has played fewer games (113) than any player in the top 10. He is so valuable that even the tight-fisted Cardinals signed him to an eight-year, $120 million contract in late August.
"It doesn't matter how you cover him," Farrior said. "If the quarterback throws him the ball, he has a good chance of catching it, no matter how good the coverage is, no matter where the guy is."
Right now, that has been one of the problems with new quarterback Kevin Kolb, whom Arizona acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, hoping he might recapture some of the magic that has been missing since Kurt Warner retired.
Kolb looks so much for Fitzgerald that it is distracting him from making his reads and learning the Cardinals offense. He has thrown one touchdown and five interceptions in the past three games.
"I think the natural tendency for a young quarterback is to go to your security blanket, to want to get it to Larry," Whisenhunt said. "I know anybody would feel comfortable knowing they only have to get it close to Larry and he's going to make a play. [But] he's got to get more comfortable with our offense and our reads and trust the scheme of the offense."
Maybe in time. Maybe when the Cardinals develop another receiver to deflect the attention on Fitzgerald.
For now, Kolb will sift through the traffic to find his star receiver, just as he did when he threw wildly off his back foot and Fitzerald caught the ball between two defenders in Minnesota -- Kolb's only touchdown pass in the past three games.
"I would imagine if things are not going your way consistently, sometimes it's easy to look and say, 'Maybe we're not that good,' " Fitzgerald said. "I never allow myself to have something like that come in my mind. I keep a positive outlook on things."
There aren't many negatives with Larry Fitzgerald.
First Published October 23, 2011 12:00 am