Cardinals Look to Stars for Victory in Tampa

Ken Whisenhunt (Getty)

The focus this Super Bowl week will be the team's stars: wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's magnificent postseason, fellow wideout Anquan Boldin's sideline rant in the NFC Championship Game and quarterback Kurt Warner's return to the Super Bowl. All good stories.

But the main reason the Cardinals are in Tampa is the performance of the offensive and defensive lines, which has improved dramatically in the past month.

Consider where the team was after getting whipped by New England, 47-7. The Cardinals were dominated physically in that game and looked everything like a one-and-done playoff team.

But adjustments were made the following week. On offense, there was a renewed commitment to the run. Defensively, the answer was as simple as playing smarter and with more passion.

The Cardinals are never going to be known as a running team, not with Warner, Fitzgerald and Boldin. But the team gradually moved away from the ground game this year.

The Cardinals had success passing and it led them to a 7-3 record through 10 games, along with their first division championship since 1975.

But the schedule became tougher over the final six regular-season games. The Cardinals lost four of those, including three blowouts. Most often, they fell behind early, which made sticking with the run nearly impossible.

That changed, starting with the last game of the regular season. Coaches returned Edgerrin James to the role as featured back and started calling more running plays. That trend has continued through the playoffs, much to the delight of the offensive linemen.

Even though the Cardinals finished last in rushing, the linemen remained confident they could run block if asked. And for the past month, the Cardinals have been asking.

"When you ask an offensive linemen to (pass) block 50 times, that's going to take a toll," James said. "Offensive linemen prefer to run the ball, and now we're in the position where we're doing both, so I think they're happy.

"The thing about it is we know we have to make it work. We can't just get up there and think we're going to run the ball and not get any yards."

It helps that the offensive line has played together all season. Not one starter has missed a game. Entering the season, there were questions about center Lyle Sendlein, right guard Deuce Lutui and right tackle Levi Brown, and all three have been solid in recent weeks.

They've benefited from the commitment to running.

"You never want to get one-dimensional," said left guard Reggie Wells. "We've had a pretty solid offense but there was a point where we maybe were having too many passes called. It's good to be able to control some clock. We knew we could do it. It was just a matter of getting those runs called."

Defensively, the Cardinals' performance has all been predicated on motivation. The more that has been on the line, the better the defensive line has played. In the weeks after the Cardinals clinched the division title, the entire team, especially the defensive line, coasted.

That led to blowout losses at New England and Philadelphia and at home against the Vikings. There was a lack of discipline. Gaps went unfilled and too many big plays were given up.

That changed in the postseason. There was an emphasis on each player doing his job and no more. The Cardinals used their quickness to shut down the run, and it helped that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast devised some new schemes, including playing nose tackles Bryan Robinson and Gabe Watson together.

The pass rush also has improved. The Cardinals have seven sacks in the playoffs, and defensive ends Darnell Dockett and Antonio Smith both have made plays that directly led by points.

End/outside linebacker Bertrand Berry looks quick and fast at age 33 and has more than made up for the continued injury problems to starter Travis LaBoy.

The Cardinals will need a similar effort to stop the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII. They can't let running back Willie Parker make big plays and when they get a shot at quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, they have to bring him down, or at least stop him from scrambling and finding receivers.

When it's playing well, the Cardinals' defensive front can be formidable. Dockett is as quick off the ball as any end in the league, and Berry is great at coming off the edge and turning the corner to get to the quarterback.

Smith, who will be a free agent at the end of the season, at times has looked like an elite player in the playoffs.

QUOTE: "When I went to the Suns' playoff game my first year here and saw the excitement of fans at that game, I thought if we could win we would get that on a bigger scale with football. Sure enough, the championship game was exactly that. It was unbelievable." - Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt.

TRENDING: It has taken a few months, but running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower have returned to the roles in which they started the season. James is again the featured back, a job he lost to Hightower midway through the season. And Hightower is again the short-yardage and goal-line back.

It has been a good move for both. James is a savvy veteran whose experience has been valuable in the playoffs. He rarely loses yardage and he's breaking tackles on the second level, something he didn't do consistently earlier in the year.

Hightower was struggling as the starter, but not all of it was his fault. The Cardinals fell behind early in game, which made it impossible to stick with running plays. As the running game faltered, it appeared Hightower started to press to make big plays. He danced a little too much and there were too many runs for minus yards.

Hightower excels in the short-yardage role because he's a downhill, one-cut runner. And he is physical. He also has the speed to bounce outside if the hole isn't there.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--OLB/DE Travis LaBoy suffered a left biceps injury against the Eagles in the NFC title game but he expects to play in the Super Bowl. LaBoy is experimenting with a brace. It's likely he will be at least a part-time player Sunday.

--WR Anquan Boldin appears recovered from a hamstring strain that kept him out of the divisional round and limited him against the Eagles in the NFC title game.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald has gained at least 100 yards receiving in five consecutive games, and his 419 yards in the playoffs is an NFL record.

--RB J.J. Arrington is nursing a right knee injury that kept him out of practice during the week after the conference championship.

Arrington thinks he will be able to play in the Super Bowl, however, and hopes to practice in Tampa.

--P Ben Graham struggled through the championship game with a sore groin muscle. He rested during the week after the title game and should be ready to go for the Super Bowl.

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