Friday, January 30, 2009

My Apologies, Pittsburgh

Sorry, Steelers fans: But I am picking you to win the Super Bowl on Sunday.

The good news is that I am 2-0 picking Steelers games in these playoffs. The bad news is that I am 2-6 picking the other games, including picking against the Cardinals when they played the Panthers and the Eagles.

Too much defense. Too much running game. Too much time proving that they can take down top receivers in this league. I am not saying they can shut down Larry Fitzgerald, but Randy Moss and Terrell Owens were held below 50 yards each this season when Dick Lebeau wanted to lock it down.

I really think the Cardinals are still a 9-7 team, and I believe the better team is the Steelers. I trust them more, and while the Cards are a nice story….the Steelers are better. Just like the Patriots last year.

Steelers 24, Cardinals 21

20 the key number?

The Arizona Cardinals are 0-4 this season in games in which they score 20 points or less.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 12-1 when they've allowed 20 points or less.

The Cardinals' formula for Super Bowl XLIII seems simple, then. Somehow, someway, they have to find a way to score three touchdowns against the Steelers' defense.
"I think it will be our biggest challenge of the year, without a doubt, on the biggest stage, which just adds to it," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.
Some pundits have proclaimed this Steelers defense the best the NFL has seen in the last 20 years. That's debatable, but there's no question as to its dominance this season.

Pittsburgh ranked No. 1 in scoring defense (13.9 points), No. 1 in total defense (237.2 yard), No. 1 in passing defense (156.9) and No. 2 in rush defense (76.9).
"I'm a game-time dude, but at the same time you have to look at (those numbers)," tight end Leonard Pope said. "They're not ranked No. 1 for nothing. They fly around to the ball, they stop the run and they bring blitzes about every other play. They've got a great defensive line, linebackers and also the secondary. The guys just make plays all over the field."

Other than that, the Cardinals should have it easy.

Arizona has discovered a running game in the playoffs, averaging 111 yards on the ground after rushing for just 73.6 yards in the regular season. But it will be difficult to maintain that output against Pittsburgh.

"This game won't be any different than any other," Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We're going to go out there, stop the run, and make them one-dimensional. That's what we do."

Fortunately for the Cardinals, their strength offensively is their passing game. Rather than try to slug it out with the Steelers - a battle they'd undoubtedly lose - they'll try to spread the field and get the ball to wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald.

"They make big plays," Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu said. "Anytime you can make big plays in games, it really limits what the defense can do."

A key for the Cardinals is how they'll handle the exotic blitz schemes of Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Arizona might see nine players on the line of scrimmage one play; three pass rushers the next and a zone blitz on third down.

If the Steelers can create chaos and confusion with their packages, they've won half the battle.

Who gets Obama’s support?

At the end of a photo-op with President Obama after a meeting with his economic team yesterday, the White House pool reporter lobbed a Hail Mary.

"Steelers or Cardinals, sir?"

It was the kind of "who are you rooting for" question that, when put to the president of the United States, usually gets batted down with some noncommittal platitudes.

Yesterday, though, both Obama and Vice President Biden made clear they want Pittsburgh to win the Super Bowl on Sunday.

"I have to say, you know, I wish the Cardinals the best," Obama replied. "You know, Kurt Warner is a great story, and he's closer to my age than anybody else on the field. But I am a longtime Steelers fan."

He went on to explain that Steelers owner Dan Rooney was "an extraordinary supporter" during his presidential campaign. Franco Harris, the Steelers' Hall of Fame running back, and the team's current head coach, Mike Tomlin, also backed his candidacy, Obama said.

"So . . . I wish the best to the Cardinals," the former senator from Illinois continued. "They've been long-suffering. It's a great Cinderella story. But other than the Bears, the Steelers are probably the team that's closest to my heart. All right?"

With that, Biden, who was born in Pennsylvania, chimed in with a laugh: "We agree on that one, too, boss!"

Can Edge keep it going?

Edgerrin James' strong postseason is likely to hit a wall against a Pittsburgh defense that allowed just 3.3 yards per carry during the regular season (and 2.4 yards per carry in its first two playoff games). If Arizona is going to get anywhere on the ground, the best bet might be a draw play. It's a favorite strategy of Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and our game charters marked Arizona with more draw plays than any team except New England. Meanwhile, the Steelers' defense allowed a surprising 8 yards per carry on regular-season draws, more than any defense except Kansas City.

On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that draw plays won't do any better than other runs against the Steelers. They've tightened up on draws in the postseason, allowing San Diego and Baltimore just 11 yards on six draws. And while the Cardinals like to run the draw, they aren't particularly good at it. The Cardinals averaged just 3.9 yards on draws during the regular season, much less than the NFL average of 5.5 yards. Even in the playoffs, the Cardinals have averaged 4.1 yards on draws.

A better way for Arizona to take advantage of Pittsburgh's pass rush tendencies might be the screen pass. Fifty percent of Arizona's running back screens this season met our definition of success (based on down and distance), one of the best figures in the NFL. Remember, the touchdown that sent the Cardinals to the Super Bowl was a screen pass to Tim Hightower. While the Steelers were overall the best defense in the league against running backs in the passing game, they were only average against running back screens.

The one aspect of the Cardinals' play that has improved the most during the postseason has been pass defense. Statistically, much of this improvement comes in the red zone, where the Cardinals ranked 22nd in DVOA during the regular season. Their numbers for the postseason are excellent -- but that's entirely because of two red zone interceptions thrown by Jake Delhomme. Donovan McNabb and Matt Ryan still combined to complete 9 out of 11 passes in the red zone. Three of those passes were touchdowns, and three more gave the offense first-and-goal.

Now on to Hockey….

You really have to be in to Dallas Stars hockey to watch a game on your laptop using your slingbox in a hotel outside Tampa, Florida. The hotel internet lags, and you can barely follow the puck. Ralph and Razor slur their words a bit, and the video is far from ideal, but….

This was Detroit. This was a huge win that puts the Stars right where they want to be. The Stars are now tied for 7th in the West, and they are now officially “hot”.
They opened a 4-0 lead on Thursday night, with some very rare power play conversions on the road, and then showed fine composure in the 3rd period after some help from the officials in the 2nd period. The Stars have now won 5 of the last 7 games against Detroit going back to last spring’s playoffs. It almost makes you wonder if the Stars may have actually built some confidence should a playoff pairing between the two teams happen.

Detroit sure looks odd right now. Fighting a losing streak and some complacency, they finally look like they are fighting against the long dog days of winter. No Henrik Zetterberg didn’t help them, but I think their real issue is that Chris Osgood is really playing poorly recently.

Meanwhile, the Stars roll on with a solid PP, some reasonable play in their own end, and most notably, controlling the Red Wings offensive explosion. You see, when the Stars go into Detroit, much is made of Marty Turco’s issues, but I also think the Stars make sure he sees more rubber than a dead skunk on the Trans-Canadian Turnpike (the previous quip stolen from Don Cherry).

Last night’s performance was the fewest shots allowed on goal in the 11 trips to Joe Louis Arena since the lockout. 24 shots is all they gave up. In games in which the Stars allow 25 shots or fewer, the Stars are 2-0 in Detroit. Marty has to be good, but the defense has to help him.

Great win, and now with a ton of home games in February, I am feeling much better about April being occupied with some playoff hockey around here.

Keep rehabbing, Brenden. You may have something to hurry back for…

The game story from Heika

The Stars earned their win against one of the best teams in the league by playing strong, structured team hockey and taking advantage of special teams play. Dallas went 3-for-5 on the power play and killed two Detroit power plays in the third period.

The Stars won three consecutive games for the first time this season and pushed themselves to 22-18-7.

They are 5-1-2 since that earlier loss to the Wings.

"We've been competitive in the last 20 games or so, and now we've put a string of games together," Tippett said. "We've got a long way to go before the end, but I think our team is coming around."

And nothing will give a team confidence like a win in Detroit.

Dallas was 2-7-0 in its last nine visits and goalie Marty Turco had never won a regular-season game at Joe Louis Arena, bringing in an 0-8-2 record here.

Turco, who had 22 saves, said he felt the confidence of the team surge in a third period when Dallas allowed just four shots on goal despite facing the best home power play in the NHL for 2:55.

The London Times tells its readers to watch the Super Bowl ….

Buy Dan’s Shirt

UFC 94

It's tough to blame B.J. Penn for leaning on a mental crutch to get him through those first few minutes of physical peril in the octagon with Georges St. Pierre.

In the days leading up to their heavily anticipated title bout at UFC 94 in Las Vegas, Penn has improbably proclaimed that the UFC welterweight champion is a quitter who won't have anything left if Penn can just survive the initial onslaught of arguably the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artist in the world.

"That's how I'm going to beat him, because I'm going to get through all of his skills," Penn said. "You know he's tough and he's all of these things, but once I get through, he's going to be empty on the inside, and that's how I'm going to finish him."

St. Pierre (17-2) might be the favorite in the MGM Grand Garden's rematch of the two top UFC stars' memorable March 2006 bout, but Penn (13-4-1) is far from a one-in-a-million underdog after winning the UFC lightweight title early last year and defending it last May.

"I love to be the underdog," Penn said. "I haven't been the underdog for a long time. Fighters who don't believe I can win this fight, it's simply because they don't believe in themselves, that they could go out and beat a great champion at a higher weight."

UFC 94 Saturday Night

So Awesome: Rice Owl gets ejected

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