´ Steel Curtain Rising: Super Bowl XLIII - A Look to Questions Past Gives Clues to Sunday's Answers

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII - A Look to Questions Past Gives Clues to Sunday's Answers

“This group understands the standard that comes with being a Pittsburgh Steeler, and we’ve got some work to do.”
-- Mike Tomlin, on why his players did not celebrate more after defeating the Baltimore Ravens.

The Steelers have come a long way and accomplished a since the convened training camp in Latrobe last July. But, as Mike Tomlin would say, they’re still writing their story.

It will be against the Arizona Cardinals that the Steelers will write the definitive chapter of their 2008 season. While true conclusions remain elusive until the final gun in Tampa, a look at what we’ve already learned about Tomlin and his players offers some insight into how Super Bowl XLIII will transpire.

2007 was a good year for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger proved that 2006 was a fluke, an AFC North Crown was added, and the Rooneys showed that they’re pretty good evaluators of coaching talent.

As impressive as his rookie campaign was, Tomlin and his Steelers started at St. Vincent with some real questions to answer. 10-6 is a respectable record, but the Steelers finished 1-4, and lost two home games to the same opponent for the first time in conference history. Besides, Steelers Nation does not seek respectability, it demands excellence.

In two separate articles, Steel Curtain Rising probed the areas that would determine Tomlin’s ability to deliver excellence. On the eve of Super Bowl XLIII, this is what we have learned so far and what it means for Super Bowl XLIII.

Is Mike Tomlin Too Chummy With His Coaches?

We won’t spend too much time on this, as the next two questions closely relate to this larger question. The suspicion at the time was that Tomlin was more like Noll and his mentor Tony Dungy than his predecessor Bill Cowher. The former men bent over backwards not to fire assistant whom they liked; Bill Cowher cut his lieutenants loose without a second thought.

Honestly, we do not know this answer yet, and probably will not for a long, long time.

But it is interesting to note that stories about the Steelers are no longer chalked full of quotes about how “great it is to work for a head coach that grants a wide degree of autonomy.”

Also interesting was Phil Simms comment that Tomlin had put his own, person touches on the DB’s pass coverage techniques. None of this means that Tomlin has become overbearing, but it does suggest a slightly different approach.

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: Really, not many. Tomlin’s job is to get the Steelers players and coaches functioning harmoniously and thus far he has shown he is up to the job.

Should Bob Ligashesky Have Been Fired?

What a difference two weeks makes…. At the end of the regular season, the answer to this question looked like a solid “no.” Certainly, the Steelers were not getting any help form their return game. But during the 2008 season the Steelers kick coverage went from being acceptable, to good, to excellent. This stood in stark contrast to 2007, the blood lettng on the coverage teams never seemed to stop.

Special teams performance as slipped in the playoffs. OK, one can argue that Santonio Holmes electrifying 65 yard punt against San Diego cancels the long return by the Chargers.

That’s a great argument on paper that is really bogus in reality. During the Baltimore game the Steelers had 21 yard punt and only a personal foul penalty saved the Steelers from a devastating punt return.

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: The Arizona Cardinals handed Mike Tomlin his first regular season defeat in 2007, largely on the strength of special teams. Bob Ligasheky’s must make sure this pattern does not repeat itself in Super Bowl XLIII.

Do Tomlin and Bruce Arians Philosophies Clash?

Ooh, my. Has Bruce Arians been a lighting rod for criticism this year, and Steel Curtain Rising has contributed its fair share. The root of the issue is simple. When he was hired, and many times since then Mike Tomlin expressed a commitment to attrition football.

Nonetheless, one of the first acts of the man he hired to be his offensive coordinator, was to phase out the full back.

And there you have your disparity.

On the eve of Super Bowl XLIII, this answer remains nebulous. Arains commitment to the run has been suspect to say the least.

In all fairness to Airans, he’s really hasn’t had the personnel to put together a power running game, with four new starters on offensive line, and a rash of injuries at the running back slot.

Still, in a late season on line chat, the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette indicated that he thought Tomlin might not be completely happy with Arians’ play calling and game planning. (To be objective, Bouchette was quick to add that this was his impression, and did not go into much detail beyond a vague comment.)

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: Going up against Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald, in addition to Arizona’s two other 1,000 yard receivers, it does not take a genius to figure out that ball control is going to figure prominently into the Steelers game plan.

    For the Steelers to succeed in Super Bowl XLIII, Tomlin and Arians must be on the same page.

Can the Steelers Protect Ben?

Early on, the answer to this question would have been “NO.” But the pass protection, and indeed the play of the entire offensive line has improved as the season progressed. Ben got the time he needed against San Diego, and while he did take four sacks against Baltimore, there are also plenty of snaps when he had time to pass.

The Steelers will only underestimate the Cardinals defense at their peril, but the fact is that while Arizona does field a good defensive team, these are not the Ravens.

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: The line's performance should have improved enough to give Ben the time he needs, if not it will be a long day.

Can the Steelers Close?

Man, what a difference a year, not to mention the return of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu, makes. One of the most disturbing scenes of the Steelers 2007 season was the sight of the Steelers losing close games late in the 4th quarter, in a way that they never, ever did under Bill Cowher.

18 games later, the image the Steelers painted a very different picture. In 2008 the Steelers have been a team that as won games in the final two minutes, time and time again.

And its been a team effort, with contributions on both sides of the ball, and mercifully, cross your fingers, they’ve avoided shooting themselves in the foot on special teams (see above.)

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: Once again, this is going to be the ultimate test. Kurt Warner is one of the quarterbacks in the league that can strike downfield at any moment, and at any time during the game. How many times have we seem him stuffed for 58 minutes, only to draw blood in the last two minutes?

    And he clearly has the weapons to throw to. These Arizona receivers know how to get their hands on the ball if Warner puts it near them.

    There’s no formula for stopping this. James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons company are simply going to need to get in Kurt Warner’s face up front. Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Bret Keisel are going to need to stuff the run game and pressure the passer where they can.

    And Dick LeBeau is going to have to develop a plan that keeps Warner and Ken Whisenhunt guessing.

    The bottom line is that it comes down to execution. The Steelers simply need to do their thing, do it well and maintain focus for the full 60 minutes.

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