Saturday, January 31, 2009

Steelers' Saturday Pool Report

Mike Reiss served as the pool reporter at the Steelers' Saturday practice, the final practice before Super Bowl XLIII. We present the report in its entirety, as provided by the NFL (with small formatting changes). Not much news, but a glimpse into the hearts of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert.

TAMPA – With approximately 250 family members and friends watching from the end zone, and Rev. Jesse Jackson invited as a special guest of head coach Mike Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers held a 38-minute walkthrough at the University of South Florida on Saturday morning, their final on-field practice before Super Bowl XLIII.

The Steelers did not have family members and friends at their final walkthrough practice prior to Super Bowl XL, under former coach Bill Cowher.

“We had some people who have been special to us come to practice today – family members and high school coaches,” Tomlin said. “It’s not a big deal to us, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them. We wanted to show our appreciation for what they’ve done for us by allowing them to be a part of it.”

Of Jackson’s presence, Tomlin said: “I got to know him recently. He’s a fan of football, a supporter of us, and we appreciate it.”

Other guests at practice included Florida State safety and Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle, and Mike Utley, the paralyzed former Detroit Lions offensive lineman. Utley, who took a picture with Tomlin after practice, was a guest of Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert.

“I had the good fortune of working for the Detroit Lions when Mike Utley was one of our players, and it was real special to have him be able to share this with us,” Colbert said.

At the end of the practice, Tomlin called all family members and friends to the middle of one of the two practice fields at the University of South Florida, shouting out instructions as a team photographer – standing high on a ladder – snapped a large group picture. Tomlin then stayed on the field for 37 minutes signing autographs and taking individual pictures with players’ families. Many players brought their own cameras and video recorders to the practice.

Asked if he was pleased with the health-related progress of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Hines Ward, Tomlin said “both guys are fine.” Roethlisberger took a shot to the kidney area in the AFC championship game Jan. 18, and receiver Hines Ward strained his right knee in that game.

With Saturday’s walkthrough practice being held at half speed, Ward did not wear a brace over his injured right knee as he did earlier in the week. He walked through drills at a normal pace.

Summing up the week, Tomlin said: “It’s been good. Ultimately, though, it will be judged by how we perform tomorrow. We understand that.”

Tomlin also thanked the University of South Florida for the hospitality shown to the Steelers.

“We appreciate them opening up their facility to us,” he said. “We felt more than welcome.”

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Cardinals' Saturday Pool Report

Mike Sando served as the pool reporter at the Arizona practice on Saturday. We present the report in its entirety, as provided by the NFL (with small formatting changes).

TAMPA, Fla. -- The NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals completed their final preparations for Super Bowl XLIII with a walk-through practice under clear skies Saturday at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' facility.

"I think we had a good week of work," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

The Cardinals kept the atmosphere relaxed as the team completed brief sessions for offense, defense and special teams. About 300 friends and family members watched most of the roughly 35-minute session. They mingled on the field after practice. Some posed for pictures with Whisenhunt and other members of the organization.

"There are so many sacrifices made by families to allow our players and our team to get here," Whisenhunt said. "This is something that is special and I think it's important that you enjoy that together."

Some players traded jerseys as is sometimes customary for these walk-through practices. Kicker Neil Rackers wore the No. 90 assigned to defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, for example.

The Cardinals reported no new injuries. All players participated in the walk-through.

"Everybody looks pretty good as far as getting through," Whisenhunt said. "I know there were a couple of guys listed on the report as questionable, but barring something else coming up, which today nothing came up, I don't anticipate that they will not play."

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Peter King's Super Bowl Preview

Peter King really is one of our favorites, but the pool report he filed from Friday's practice was a snoozer! So rather than finishing with that we decided to share his preview from the current issue of Sports Illustrated (and this is as good a time as any to thank the folks at SI ~ they have been incredibly helpful and generous during this NFL season, and we appreciate all they did for us!).

It is also worth mentioning that, in addition to the preview, this week's issue features a terrific article by Tim Layden on the ties that bind the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh. The title of the article: "We are Family."

Super Bowl XLIII Preview: Cardinals vs. Steelers

A sixth ring for Pittsburgh or a historic first for Arizona? It all hinges on whether the NFL’s best defense can do what no one else has done in the playoffs: knock Larry Fitzgerald off his game

By Peter King

This super bowl has one significant element in common with last year's: The underdog most assuredly can win if it plays to its strength. In Super Bowl XLII the Giants had a chance against the mighty Patriots as long as New York's quick, flexible and unpredictable defensive front won the battle at the line of scrimmage. This year the Cardinals have a shot against the imposing Steelers if Larry Fitzgerald can make big plays like he did in the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Against the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles on successive weekends in January, the 6' 3", 220-pound fifth-year wideout torched secondaries for a total of 23 receptions, 419 yards and five touchdowns. When single-covered, Fitzgerald beat them long, as he did on the 62-yard flea-flicker touchdown against Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game; when doubled, he leaped between defensive backs for jump balls thrown by Kurt Warner, as he did against Atlanta and Carolina. Also, Fitzgerald is more physical than he looks—"He's got a little tight end in him," says Rams cornerback Ron Bartell—and has been more effective in the middle of the field than in the past, the beneficiary of offensive coordinator Todd Haley's plan to make him a complete receiver. The 25-year-old Fitzgerald now does so many things that are hard to defend against that Pittsburgh's mantra in preparation for Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday in Tampa is: Expect him to make plays, but stop him from making the big plays.

The Steelers' defense must force the Cardinals to use 13 plays to score, not three. And to do that Pittsburgh will have to change some of its tendencies. For one, instead of allowing heat-seeking safety Troy Polamalu to roam the field, blitzing and intimidating at will, the Steelers might have to play him and free safety Ryan Clark in a more disciplined two-deep scheme, to ensure that Fitzgerald gets nothing deep. Second, the Steelers must alter their blitz philosophy. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau mostly reserves the blitz for obvious passing downs, but on occasion in this game he'll have to disrupt Warner by sending outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison on first- and second-down plays. And though LeBeau doesn't use bump coverage as much as some coordinators, he'd be wise to hit Fitzgerald plenty within the legal five-yard zone.

As defensive backs and coaches who faced Fitzgerald this year learned, you have to show him different looks over the course of the game. "I've been around some great receivers in 25 years in this league," says Jim Mora, Seattle's secondary coach in 2008 who was promoted to head coach after the season. "Jerry Rice ran every route with a purpose. Terrell Owens runs angry. Larry runs with a viciousness. He attacks the defense. He's become a much more physical player this year, but I don't think you can just play him in a physical way exclusively. He's too smart for that."

Here's more advice for the Steelers from players and coaches accustomed to seeing Fitzgerald in the NFC.

Reroute him as he comes off the line: Fitzgerald had 11 catches in two games combined against San Francisco this year, but only one of those went for more than 10 yards because the 49ers wouldn't let him get comfortable. "We make him start his route again whenever possible," says Niners secondary coach Johnnie Lynn. "That takes time off Kurt's clock. If Kurt gets a second taken away, with Larry starting his route again, it might take Larry out of the play." Lynn says he'll line up a corner inside of Fitzgerald and try to send him up the side on one play, then in the same formation the next time put the corner outside and try to force him to the middle. The key, Lynn says, is to not let Fitzgerald dictate the coverage.

Hit hard when the ball reaches his hands: "The Cardinals threw him five fades against us this year," says Rams safety Corey Chavous, "and they were 0 for 5. That's because Ron Bartell, who's 6' 1", played him so well." Which is where 6' 2" Steelers corner Ike Taylor comes in; he's likely to be matched against Fitzgerald on deep balls. Says Bartell, "When the ball is close or Fitzgerald's just getting it, I try to play through his hands and into his helmet. He's got the best hands in the league by far, so you want to be physical on his hands."

Pittsburgh has to attack Fitzgerald's body as well as the ball: "He did a LeBron against us last year," says Lynn. "They threw a jump ball in the end zone at the end of the half, and none of our guys got up to his elbow. He's special in crowds, the best of the big guys at going up for the ball." If the Steelers can't leap with Fitzgerald, they'd better make sure he feels the body shots on his way down in hopes of dislodging the ball.

Beware the flea-flicker: Only once in two games this postseason has a receiver—San Diego's Vincent Jackson—caught a ball beyond Pittsburgh's last defender. "You don't get behind our secondary," Taylor says. But twice in three games Fitzgerald has gained more than 40 yards on gadget plays. Polamalu must be smart enough to recognize the trap when the Cardinals try to pull it. Two months ago it would have been easier for Pittsburgh. The Steelers could have kept their two safeties back 100% of the time, because in the regular season there was no Arizona running game to worry about—the Cards ran the ball just 36% of the time. But with their tight ends' return to health and playing mostly with a lead in the playoffs, Arizona has run on 52% of its snaps. "Now we've got play-action back," Haley says. That will keep Pittsburgh's defensive backs guessing.

Watch the pick play: The Cards like to send Fitzgerald across the middle, expecting to free him by losing defenders in traffic. At least 12 snaps a game Arizona uses four-wide sets, which Pittsburgh sees very little of in the AFC North. In one of Haley's preferred formations, he bunches three wideouts on one side and puts Fitzgerald alone on the other. "The chess match is going to be the Pittsburgh linebackers on the Arizona receivers," says Lynn, "because on early downs Pittsburgh usually lets the linebackers drop in coverage. You can't leave Larry alone on the backside of that three-by-one formation. He'll either beat you deep or get lost in coverage over the middle."

The Steelers will have to pick their poison: Do you force Fitzgerald to the outside and risk getting beat deep down the sideline, or lay off and take your chances on a succession of 12-yard crosses and eight-yard curls?

Fitzgerald isn't the only player Pittsburgh has to worry about: Arizona has two other 1,000-yard receivers in Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Yet with LeBeau setting the tone the Steelers' defense will be confident. And why not? They're the No. 1 defense in the NFL. They mauled the Patriots and the Cowboys—two good downfield passing clubs—late in the season, harassing Matt Cassel and Tony Romo into five interceptions and eight sacks total while holding them to a 51% completion rate and two touchdown drives on 26 combined possessions.

Warner and Fitzgerald versus the new Steel Curtain is going to be a fair fight. Just remember that Arizona put up 32 points on Philadelphia's third-ranked defense in the NFC title game, with Fitzgerald contributing three first-half touchdown catches. If the Cardinals—and Fitzgerald—come close to duplicating that performance on Sunday night, they'll join the 1969 Jets, 2001 Patriots and 2007 Giants as history's unlikeliest Super Bowl winners.

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Friday, January 30, 2009

F=MA

Issac Newton's Second Law, and its application in the National Football League is the topic of an article in Friday's New York Times.

Of interest to fans of the Steelers is that Ryan Clark is quoted liberally.

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So, who is the underdog again?

A majority of CNNSI.com writers are predicting an Arizona win in Super Bowl XLIII

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Steelers' Friday Pool Report

Peter King of Sports Illustrated served as the pool reporter at the Steelers' Friday practice. We present the report in its entirety, as provided by the NFL (with small formatting changes). We enjoy Mr. King's work immensely, but this may be one of the least informative news reports ever (then again, if there is no news . . .)

TAMPA--The Pittsburgh Steelers, appearing loose and relaxed for the third straight day, hustled through their final major practice prior to Super Bowl XLIII Friday at the University of South Florida, and coach Mike Tomlin said his team was completely healthy heading into the Sunday night game against the Arizona Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium. All 53 players, including wide receiver Hines Ward (right knee strain), practiced without restriction in unseasonably chilly conditions for an hour and 50 minutes.

Ward and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, speared in the kidney area during the AFC Championship Game 12 days ago, looked sharp. Roethlisberger executed several efficient red zone and goal-line plays, finding tight end Heath Miller for a couple of scores.

The Steelers will conclude their practice week with a short walk-through session on USF's two football practice fields Saturday at 10 a.m. before the club changes lodging Saturday afternoon from their Tampa hotel to a private location in the Tampa Bay area to ensure privacy and a good night's sleep before Sunday's game.

"I feel great about our preparation,'' coach Mike Tomlin said at the close of practice. "Of course, you evaluate your preparation by your performanc e in the game, but I think the guys understand everything they have to do entering the game.''

The Steelers implemented the gameplan for the Super Bowl last week at their Pittsburgh practice facility. The Wednesday, Thursday and Friday practices in Tampa were mirror workout of what the team did last week.

"This week was a re-do,'' he said. "We didn't have the sense of urgency we might normally have in a practice week, but that's because the guys have seen it all once.''

Tomlin said he thinks his team is ready to play, and isn't worried about the condition of any his players. He said Ward's status for the game "never was a question.'' It's now clear Ward will be in Sunday's starting lineup.

Practice began at 11 in a light rain with a temperature of 55 degrees, a drop of 22 degrees from Wednesday's week-opening practice. Working with piped-in crowd noise at the snap of the ball, the Pittsburgh first-team offense and defense worked on third-and-short, goal-line, red-zone and nickel situations. As he has done all week, backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, playing the scout team, gave an effective look of Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, putting air under his deep balls the way Warner does.

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Cardinals' Friday Pool Report

John Czarnecki served as the pool reporter at the Arizona practice on Friday. We present the report in its entirety, as provided by the NFL (with small formatting changes). Of note is the fact that the Cardinals know how to travel, Kurt Warner looked especially sharp, and Neil Rackers tried to bust some windows.

The sun came out for the final 45 minutes of practice as the Arizona Cardinals wrapped up their last major day of work in preparation for Super Bowl XLIII. The team plans a final walk-through Saturday morning for about 30 minutes at the Tampa Bay Bucs’ facility. They will not be visiting Raymond James Stadium prior to the game.

“I thought it was a good week of work,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said after practice. “You always wonder when you go on the road and your team is practicing in another facility if your team is going to have the consistency that you’ve had. No question that it helped us that we’ve already done this once this season.”

Whisenhunt was referring to the week-long stay the Cardinals made in the Washington, D.C. area between the Sept. 21 game against the Redskins and the following Sunday’s a game in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets.

“I think it got us used to staying in a hotel, practicing on someone else’s field while also having to bus around all week,” he said. “These were very similar conditions this week.”

Starting quarterback Kurt Warner may have had his best throwing day of the week on Friday, misfiring on only three passes during the two hour and 20-minute practice.

“Kurt looked like he’s been looking,” Whisenhunt said. “He was consistent and made some good throws. He looked sharp.”

The Cardinals spent a concentrated period of time in the middle of practice working on punt protection, but the highlight of special team drills was when kicker Neil Rackers bounced three consecutive 20-yard field goals off the second-floor windows of the Bucs’ facility.”

“It seemed like it fired up a lot of the guys,” Whisenhunt said. “I think some of them wanted to see (a window go).”

Whisenhunt declined to reveal what he said to his players in a three-minute huddle at the end of the day. And also whatever plans he has for the weekend. His team will have a curfew tonight and Saturday night. The last no-curfew night for the players was Tuesday.

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Friday's Interviews: Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin had an extended session with the media during which he outlined his plans for the weekend, how being a head coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers was really a fallback plan to something else, and Ben Roethlisberger's health and well-being.

(on the team’s schedule for Saturday and Sunday leading up to the game): “Really it is going to be the way Saturdays and Sundays have been for us all season. We will have a final walkthrough on Saturday morning, and guys will have free time after that to get some final things and adjustments made in terms of taking care of their families and personal business. We will rally in the evening, go to an undisclosed location and go through our normal night before the game routine in seclusion. We will get up on Sunday morning and have chapel service – things guys need to do and routines they go through to prepare themselves for the game, like message therapy or what have you. We will have a pregame meal, board buses and go to the stadium. We will approach the locker room time in the same way that we always do. It has been a pretty good formula for us. We are going to try to move as close to normalcy as we can. The kickoff time is somewhat obscure, but it’s not like we had a bunch of 1 o’clock kickoffs this year either. I don’t expect it to be very different at all.”



(on the developing culture of the veteran players with rings encouraging the players on the team without rings): “I think that is one example of the way our team motivates one another. I have an accountability group. We have great leadership. They apply pressure to one another to deliver, and that is just one of the many ways that they do it. The guys that haven’t been there and done that want to know what that feels like. We have some guys that play significant roles on our team that weren’t a part of a world championship. They hear the stories, and they want to be a part of those stories in the future. I am talking about significant guys like Santonio Holmes who wasn’t on that Super Bowl team a couple of years ago. He was in college. LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and the list goes on and on. It is just a motivation tool that our veteran players use to get the best out of the guys that haven’t been there.”


(on getting out of coaching and going to law school): “It is true. Like a lot of other young people, I considered things that other people thought were appropriate for me as opposed to what I thought was appropriate for me. I knew right away that coaching was something that I was meant to do – something that I wanted to do. But, I didn’t give some consideration to law school. It didn’t require much bribing from coach (Rip) Scherer to pull me in that direction. As a consolation prize, I could tell my parents that I was going to graduate school, so that’s how I ended up at the University of Memphis.”



(on thinking back how he felt the moment he was hired from the Steelers): “It is an interesting story. When I found out I got the job, I was in Minnesota playing foosball with my sons. I got off the phone and they were interested in finishing the game, so we did. Really, that is the approach I have taken to it. Pressure is something that I embrace. I love the competition. I love the feeling that pressure gives me. Some people are built for those things and I always have been. I am a competitor. In regards to building relationships with the veteran players, that is old hat for me. Those are things I have had to do in every stop for me. I approached this stop no different. Truth be known, whether it was in Tampa when I had to coach John Lynch, who of course was older than me, or dating as far back to VMI when I coached three receivers that were my age – they were three seniors. It’s old hat for me.”



(on Tony Dungy, Dick LeBeau and the Rooney family’s input and guidance in his young career): “It is very significant. Let’s be real, you don’t get into the position that I am in without great influences and mentorship coming from some of the people you mentioned. One thing that I am is, I am sharp enough to realize when people can help me and I listen. I pride myself in trying to do that. Those people have always provided great advice and opportunities for me, but there are many others along the way as well who are as equally deserving as those people who are not a household name as some of those people are, but they are just as meaningful to me.”



(on the injury status of WR Hines Ward and QB Ben Roethlisberger): “Like a lot of the situations that go on with Ben’s medical status, I don’t know where that report came from. Ben is fine, he is going to play. Hines looked pretty good yesterday. We will see where he is at today and continue to push forward towards Sunday. As for the mentality regarding Hines, it has not changed. He is intent on playing in the football game. I have been here with this guy before under these circumstances through the injury he had to deal with last year in the playoffs. It was questionable whether he could perform in the game. We didn’t win the game, but he went out and played great football. I have a level of expectation for him to deal with this situation. It is not going to be an excuse for us, it is not an excuse for him, and I really expect him to be Hines Ward on Sunday.”



(on if his team playing in the Super Bowl was part of his goals when he first took the job as head coach): “It was, and I think that every head coach in the National Football League puts together a four-month calendar with this in mind. I don’t see myself any different than anyone else. I put this plan together last year, I wasn’t successful but the plan was put together. I think that is the mentality that all of us share when we go to training camp and build our football team to be the one at the end of the thing to say they are world champs. Thankfully this year, things came together for us and we are at the brink of that. Of course Sunday is going to determine the outcome of that. That is always my mentality. That was my goal a year ago, and it will continue to be my goal as long as I do what I do.”



(on if he is pleased with his team’s preparation this week, and if he has any concerns going into the game): “You know, performance always defines preparation. I can trick myself into feeling good about it. The reality is, if we play well on Sunday, it was great preparation. If we don’t play well on Sunday, then it wasn’t good enough. I feel good about where we are, and I think the guys have dealt with the things that have been presented to them this week really well. When we are by ourselves and doing what we do to prepare ourselves for this game, it was very normal. That is encouraging but ultimately, how we play on Sunday will define that.”



(on if he has heard from any of his former players or coaches): “No I haven’t, and I think because of that rich tradition, they understand that I am somewhat unavailable. Some of those guys I consider good friends and I have had the opportunity to form a great relationship with those guys in the last two years. They know what comes with this territory, we know that we have their support, but they are also sharp enough to know that we are extremely busy.”



(on coaching a team with such a large national following): “As far as the national fan following, that is not a problem at all, that is a problem we would all like to have. I embrace that. Steeler nation drives me on a day-to-day basis. They are why it is that we do what we do. We appreciate it. There is nothing like going into a hostile environment and seeing so many faces, rabid friendly faces, so that is something that is a pleasure to be apart of. I think that everybody that is in our organization has been a part of another organization appreciates it differently than people that have only had that exposure. A lot of time, talking to guys that were drafted into our circumstance, they have an understanding of how special it is because all it takes is some time in another organization. I think you develop a better appreciation for the relationship we have with our fan following.”



(on if he will stick with the same style of play that made him successful thus far): “I think one of the reasons that we have had consistent excellence over a long period of time in our organization is because we are under the leadership of Dan and Art Rooney. Their vision of what Steeler football is about is very clear. I think I have my job because my vision is similar to what their vision is. I have learned more about their vision since I have been there, so of course, I am going to play to it.”



(on what affected his decision to go into coaching instead of law school): “You know, coaching was ‘Plan B’ for me. Truth be known, I thought I’d still be playing. I thought I’d be playing on Sunday. That’s something that all players, I think, go through. When I was younger, I was just focused on playing the game. Coaching was something that came to mind as it became evident that maybe I wasn’t going to play anymore. That’s why we coach; we coach because we can’t play. Either ability dictates that we can’t play, or age dictates that we can’t play, but that’s a common bond that all coaches share. We love the game, we can’t play it, we do the next best thing which is we instruct, help and get a chance to be close to those that do. In regard to the law school thing, it was just on the radar. It was something, again, that I thought I was supposed to do. Maybe the people that were around me and the people that were influential in my life wanted to see me do great things, my mother being central in that. But I think in hindsight, she likes what I’m doing right now.”



(on his relationship with the team as a young coach and on the role of faith in his life): “I believe that we have a great relationship, talking about my relationship with the football team. I think it’s in the process of getting better because I think all relationships have an opportunity to do that over a period of time. We’ve had shared experiences to call on: successes, failures, work. I think all those things forge great relationships and friendships. That’s not something that I shy away from; That’s something that I embrace. I don’t let it rule me. What I mean is that we have tasks in front of us – challenges and things that we need to do – and you understand that those relationships are forged along that way. That’s been as fun as meeting the challenges specifically themselves. As far as faith, faith is No.1 in my life. It’s central to who I am. It allows me to keep all the things that I’ve been blessed with in complete perspective. I realize that coaching is what I do; it’s not who I am, and it’s because of that.”



(on cautioning players this weekend): “Like a lot of things, when things come up or situations arise, you often get asked how you deal with it. The reality is that if you wait until these moments to address those issues, you’re extremely late. For someone in my position, it’s part of our culture, it’s part of what we do. I wouldn’t disrespect a preseason opener. I wouldn’t treat it any different than I’m treating the Super Bowl in regards to where we need to be mentally, preparation, distractions, etc. It’s part of our culture. It’s things that are instilled on day one. It’s things that are talked about continually, so I don’t have to push the panic button as I stand here today, and we’re getting ready to play in the Super Bowl and trying to play catch-up.”



(on preparing his final message to the team): “I haven’t. I make a conscious effort to wing it. I think that’s real. I think our guys relate to that. It’s that way that I deal with them, for the most part. This week has been tougher than most in terms of trying to keep those thoughts out of my mind because there’s a lot to say. But at the same time, I’m intent on doing that (winging it). I’m going to just walk in and communicate with them like I always do. I never prepare for the night-before-the-game speech.”



(on preparing to play coach who knows the team as well as Ken Whisenhunt): “Really, we prepare like we always do. I’ve fielded questions along those lines a bunch this week, and the reality is that in today’s NFL there’s a bunch of that. There’s a bunch of fluidity in coaches and in players. I understand that this situation is getting a lot of attention because it is the Super Bowl, but I would imagine every week in the National Football League there’s somebody playing where there’s a significant coach who has a first-hand relationship with the people they’re playing against. That’s not the first time that’s happened for us. It won’t be the last. It’s something that happens all the time because there is a bunch of movement in our business, so it’s not as groundbreaking a situation as one might think it is or it may appear to be. It is because this is the Super Bowl, but we’ll deal with it as we always do.”


(on if he can learn anything from this season’s Colts game): “I hope the outcome is a little different, I’ll start there. There are some parallels that you can pull from that game and really, we had complete clarity about how that game could unfold as we prepared for it. I talked to our guys about how we could not miss opportunities against a quarterback with the capabilities of Peyton Manning. (I said) that when we had opportunities when the ball hit us in the face, that we had to deliver the goods. If we didn’t, then he was going to kill us. And that’s how that game unfolded. We had some interception opportunities that we dropped. One went through our hands and turned into a 65-yard touchdown. The other one, he produced a touchdown as the drive continued. You can draw the same parallels when you’re playing a guy like Kurt Warner - that when you’ve got him, you better get him because he’s going to come back and get you. That’s where I draw the parallel when I think about that game, but every game is different, particularly when you’re talking about two different teams. They’re a different team than the team in Indianapolis, and really, we’re a different team than the team that played against Indianapolis. That’s just football.”



(on what advantage the Steelers might have because of how many of their players have played in a Super Bowl): “I think that if there is an advantage, it is in the week leading up to the game. I think the people who have been here before help the guys with some of the things that go along with game: taking care of personal business, taking care of family members, not letting those things be a distraction and helping them stay focused on what it is we need to do in terms of playing. In terms of the game itself, I would imagine whether you have been in it before or not, it’s going to be pretty big. Some people are going to be nervous, and some people are going to be more nervous than others. If they were nervous in the first game, I’m sure they are going to be nervous in this one. The game itself is the game that is going to play out. If there is an advantage, I think it’s in the preparation leading up to the game and in dealing with some of the things that you have to deal with leading up to the game.”



(on what it means to him to be the youngest head coach in Super Bowl history): “You know, I feel extremely blessed. I haven’t spent a bunch of time dwelling on that, truth be known. Those things are nice things to talk about, but I imagine that won’t be a topic of discussion for long. Maybe next year at this time, there will be guys like (Denver Broncos head coach) Josh McDaniels or (Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach) Raheem Morris standing up here, and you won’t be talking about me. That’s football.”



(on how much the impact the running game will have in the game): “It’s going to be significant. Without giving you the specific game plan, we desire to run the football. We want to do that because we want to win by attrition. We want to impose our will on the people that we play. We recognize that is how we play. When Willie (Parker) is successful, the probability of as a team being successful goes up. We keep it in perspective, but at the same time we’ve also won games when we haven’t run the ball effectively. The issue for us is, has been and hopefully will continue to be doing what is required for us to win.”

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A Professional Preview

Our "preview" of Super Bowl XLIII was short, and quite general.

Meanwhile, the folks at Football Outsiders have come up with their preview, and it is lengthy and exquisitely detailed. Here is the bottom line:
Perhaps the Arizona Cardinals will become legendary, the ultimate underdog that finally turned around a franchise-long history of losing. Larry Fitzgerald grew up in Minnesota, so I'm sure he wouldn't mind playing the role of Kirby Puckett, leading an inferior team to victory on the ultimate stage. More likely, Super Bowl XLIII will go down as yet another glorious moment in the long, storied history of the modern NFL's most successful franchise, and the Arizona Cardinals will go down as just another mediocre opponent eventually wiped from the earth by the Terrible Towel of Fate. Hey, nobody remembers the 1979 Rams either.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thursday's Interviews: Mike Tomlin

(remarks after presentation of Motorola NFL Coach of the Year award to him): “It is a tremendous and humbling honor to be recognized by the NFL’s communication partner Motorola. As the NFL Coach of the Year, I’d like to thank the fans for their participation and support. I humbly accept this also on behalf of the other coaches and the players on our team. I’d like to say thank you.”



(opening statement): “It’s Thursday for us. We continue with this portion of our preparation, sharpening up some things we introduced yesterday, really moving forward and hitting some situational football today – the beginning of third down and red zone stuff offensively and defensively, and of course we continue to sharpen ourselves in the kicking game.”



(on how a tough schedule prepared the Steelers for the postseason): “If it doesn’t kill you, it strengthens you. These games are fun; they are. I think our team learned a lot about ourselves in the midst of it. I think that we grew, and that’s what it’s about. When you are fortunate enough to win enough of those games, I think it prepares you for January football. I believe we have a team that doesn’t blink in the face of adversity, because we’ve had quite a bit and found ways to see our way through. It also provides opportunities for guys to step up and deliver, and you can’t create or get enough of those opportunities along the way in preparation for what we face on Sunday.”



(on winning the Motorola NFL Coach of the Year award): “It’s a tremendous honor to be recognized as Motorola NFL Coach of the Year. It’s doubly special because it was voted on by the fans of the game. They are the reason why we do what it is we do. I am very appreciative of that, but at the same time I recognize, like I asked all my guys to recognize, that it is the ultimate team game. We have a bunch of assistant coaches, who don’t care who gets the credit, ante up and kick in and are of the same mindset. I like to join them in that mindset.”



(on Hines Ward’s status): “Hines is great, by the way.”



(on what Troy Polamalu means to the Steelers): “It’s special. You learn to appreciate guys with the playing qualities he has, because quite simply he does what you don’t teach. You can’t teach people to play the game the way he plays the game. His intuition, his physical gifts, his perception of the game is very unique. I just learned that if you have a chance to be around guys like that, you don’t harness it, you embrace it, and you appreciate it for what it is.”



(on how much time the Steelers have spent self-scouting, and how important that process is): “That is a continual thing for us throughout the course of the season – quarterly, weekly and repeat opponents. That’s something that we continually do. To a degree we are concerned about it, but also to a degree we’re not concerned about it because it’s our personality at times, and we intend to impose our will on people in regards to that. We look at it for different reasons, but it doesn’t rule our day-to-day decision-making because sometimes we are just going to be the Pittsburgh Steelers.”



(on his relationship with Tony Dungy): “Specifically regarding Tony (Dungy) and what he’s meant to my growth and development as a coach, I learned many lessons from him, but probably more than anything, was just how accepting he was of people who he worked with – their different approaches – to teaching and conveying his message. His willingness to listen, his servant leadership capabilities – those are some of the key things that stand out having had an opportunity to work with him for a year.”



(on how his success fits in with the success of other African-Americans like President Barack Obama and Dungy): “I’m just humbled by the things that I’ve been given. By no stretch do I put myself in the category with President Obama or Tony Dungy. I don’t see myself in that way. Some of the things I get a chance to do, I benefit from some of the roads they’ve paved.



(on being in Tampa for this year’s Super Bowl): “It’s great, but I can’t sit here and tell you that it wouldn’t be great regardless of where it is. Let’s be real, this is the Super Bowl. But it is special coming back to Tampa, where it all started for me in the National Football League. It’s special for my family. We spent five great years here. This is home to my two oldest sons who are eight and seven – this is what they consider home, so they had the opportunity to visit friends and do some of the things they used to do. So from that standpoint, it’s been very special.”



(on how Ben Roethlisberger is effective when plays break down): “He is a competitor. He, of course, has great physical skills, size, strength, agility, escapability, but he’s also very smart and very even-keeled under duress. All of those attributes together allow him to extend plays, make plays as they break down and make outside-the-box plays, if you will.”



(on if he takes into account an opposing coach who has familiarity with his team): “It is very similar to the self-scout question that we had earlier. In some instances you do, and make what you perceive to be necessary adjustments. In some instances, you don’t because you are who you are. Those are some of the decisions we are coming to and make as we prepare for this game. But it’s also some of the decisions we make when we prepare for people we know and we know them – divisional opponents and people who you have a long-term competitive relationship with. It is very similar in terms of how you approach those circumstances. And this one is so unique because there are some people over there who understand the inner workings, who’ve been inside the building, but ultimately it’s going to come down to the execution of the men on the field. I firmly believe that. There is a lot of fluidity in this business from players and coaches, that’s just part of today’s NFL. This is probably garnering more attention because it is the big game, but I imagine every weekend somewhere in the National Football League during the regular season, it’s an element. It’s part of a matchup. So, it is what it is.”



(on how the Steelers are managing their short-yardage troubles): “Quite simply, it’s been difficult because we’ve played some tough opponents. We’ve played some great defenses. We are not going to make excuses for our failures. We acknowledge them for what they are. We’ve been hit in the mouth some. We’ve hit people in the mouth some. Through it all, I think we’ve grown. We found a guy in Gary Russell, who we believe has an aptitude for those situations. I think we’ve had more success since we’ve featured him specifically in those situations. The season itself is an evolution for a football team, and I think that you learn about yourself, you make adjustments, and you formulate roles along the way. I think that was one of the areas in which we were able to grow. I feel like we have grown, and hopefully it’s a weapon for us on Sunday.”



(on how important Ryan Clark is to the Steelers’ defense): “He is an important cog in our defense. He is very highly respected in our locker room for what he does inside the white lines, and for what he does outside of the white lines in preparation for games. He is a legitimate professional, and a very solid football character guy. He’s gotten some attention because of a couple of plays this year, but at the same time, those plays don’t come to mind the moment I think about Ryan Clark. I think about the consistency of performance and the quality play and leadership he provides us on a day-to-day basis.”



(on the criticism of the offensive line, and a reference to it as a work in progress): “It’s just that. We’ve had some turnover on the offensive line here in the last few years. Reputable guys, great players such as Jeff Hartings, who are no longer in the mix because of retirement, or Alan Faneca because of free agency. You couple that with some critical injuries, one to our left tackle Marvel Smith, another one to our right guard Kendall Simmons. It is what it is. We don’t run away from that. The standard of expectation doesn’t change for us. Along the way, we’ve got to find ways to win football games. It might be in the manner in which we embrace, so be it. I think this group has responded to those challenges, held a standard and provided winning performances for us. We don’t worry about the style points. People are going to say what they are going to say. When you have a number-one defense in football, somebody’s got to be the weak link. They’ve been chosen to be identified as that. But we are a team. That doesn’t drive us. We’re not concerned about that. We’re just trying to win football games.”

(on Santonio Holmes’ growth as an individual this year): “I think it started with the offseason. He came in great physical condition, much better physical condition than he was in ’07 from my perspective. I think it produced a great training camp, and he’s had a solid season. This is a guy who has a desire to be great, but more importantly, he’s willing to do what it takes on a day-to-day basis to make that happen. Is he a finished product from that standpoint? No, but he is embracing the challenges of doing that. He is growing as a person. I see it on a daily basis. But there are a lot of those stories on a football team. I think a lot of times people look at professional athletes and they view them as something that they are not. But working with those guys on a day-to-day basis, at times it’s very evident that they are young people. They are 22, 23, 24 (years old), and they are going through the normal things that people in that age group go through. I think that he is doing a nice job of it.”



(on getting Ben Roethlisberger comfortable early in the Super Bowl): “I think Ben is a different player this time around. That’s just the reality of it. His professional experience, what he’s done, his position in the group is very different this time around. He’s not the young guy that could potentially screw it up. He is a leader for our football team. He was voted captain by his teammates. We have a long-term commitment contractually to him as our quarterback. I don’t expect to deal with those issues to be quite honest with you. He’s going to go through the normal things that people go through playing in this football game. But we fully expect Ben to deliver, and deliver big for us. He has to. If we are going to be successful, he is going to be one of the key reasons why.”



(on if he has any notion on how a game might end up score-wise): “I make a conscious effort not to do that. I just always have because most of the time, I’m wrong. There are a lot of elements to the matchup. There are a lot of key matchups in the football game. Some are highlighted more than others. Usually there are some others that end up being central (to the outcome). There is a lot being made out of matchups in this football game, whether it’s their receiving corps vs. our secondary, and our offensive front blocking their defensive front. But anytime you put 11 on the field – 11 for us, 11 for them – someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. We respect all of those things. We take each individual player as an opportunity to win. So with that being said, I try not to be presumptuous.”

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Third time is the Charm:
Another Simulation

A third simulation (not counting cats) has identified the Pittsburgh Steelers as the team that will win this year's Super Bowl.

The folks at Accuscore.com accurately predicted a Steelers' victory over Baltimore in the AFC Championship game. Now comes word that these same folks are predicting A Pittsburgh win in the biggest game of the season.

After 10,000 simulations the AccuScore pegs the final score of Super Bowl XLIII as Pittsburgh 27.1 - Arizona 20.6, just within the seven point spread Las Vegas set two weeks ago.

We can only hope.

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Steelers' Thursday Pool Report

Peter King of Sports Illustrated served as the pool reporter at the Steelers' Thursday practice. We present the report in its entirety, as provided by the NFL (with small formatting changes). In today's edition questions are asked regarding Ben Roethlisberger's health, Mike Tomlin's ability to predict the weather, and Byron Leftwich's resemblance to Kurt Warner.

TAMPA--Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger practiced effectively but at times appeared to be trying to stretch his mid-torso region during the team's second full Super Bowl week practice session, held mostly in the rain at the University of South Florida Thursday afternoon.

Access to players is restricted to the Pro Football Writers of America's pool reporter at pre-Super Bowl practice sessions, but coach MIke Tomlin denied a Profootballtalk.com report that Roethlisberger has undergone X-rays on his back this week. "Not that I heard,'' said Tomlin, who then asked Steelers spokesman Dave Lockett if he knew of any X-rays on Roethlisberger. Lockett said no. Then Tomlin said: "Ben's health is often the subject of inaccurate reports. He's fine.''

Roethlisberger, 26, was speared in the rib/back area during the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore 11 days ago and did not come out of the game, but backup Byron Leftwich hurriedly warmed up in case he was needed. He said after the championship game he was fine, and nothing had surfaced about his mid-torso till Thursday's report. He threw the ball well on short and deep routes in Thursday's practice--including a 40-yard bullet up the20right seam to wide receiver Santonio Holmes, and several sharp throws to rehabbing receiver Hines Ward--even during steady rain.

Ward, who suffered a strained right knee ligament in the title game, practiced for the first time since the knee was wrenched on a first-quarter tackle against Baltimore. Although he ran at perhaps three-quarters speed, he worked with the regular offense and blocked and caught the ball in midseason form. Tomlin said Ward looked "awesome'' and reiterated what he has been saying for the past week: Ward will certainly play Sunday against the Cardinals. "He is where I thought he would be today,'' Tomlin said.

The Steelers practiced for one hour and 55 minutes on USF's two football practice field north of downtown Tampa. The practice began at 1:30 p.m., under threatening skies, and at 2:07, with skies nearly blackened, the rain began. It was a deluge for about 20 minutes and continued for 45 minutes, stopped for a short time, then resumed lightly for about the last 20 minutes of practice. Tomlin said at the start of practice it would not rain, and when it was coming down in buckets, Holmes and Ward chided Tomlin, who lived in Tampa for five years while as assistant coach with the Buccaneers, about being unable to predict the weather in his former neighborhood.

"Much like a lot of our games,'' Tomlin said, "we had adversity today. Things very rarely go smoothly for 60 minutes in a game, and they didn't go smoothly today with the rain. But we got our work done. This is a mentally tough group that smiles in the face of adversity.''

Despite the rain, the Steelers went through their normal Thursday routine, which is heavy on the starting offense and defense working against the scout teams and on red-zone work. Roethlisberger moved the offense well, finding Holmes and Ward consistently. And on defense, Pittsburgh got a heavy dose of backup quarterback Byron Leftwich imitating Kurt Warner, with practice-squad receiver Dallas Baker playing Larry Fitzgerald. Baker, a seventh-round pick of the Steelers from Florida in 2007, is 6-3, as is Fitzgerald, but at 206 pounds is 20 pounds lighter than the Cardinals' receiver he was imitating. Leftwich threw three interceptions--two to cornerback Ike Taylor--while the Steeler defense was on the field, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Tomlin thought his defense practiced well.

"We're getting a great look from our scout teams, and we have all year,'' said Tomlin. "I can't say enough about the quality of work we're getting from Byron Leftwich, who has been fantastic all season imitating the other quarterback. He's giving our defense a good look at how Kurt Warner plays.''

The Steelers will resume practice with a normal Friday session at USF at 11 a.m., and close out preparations for Sunday's game with a short walk-through practice Saturday, also at USF, at 10 a.m.

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Cardinals' Thursday Pool Report

John Czarnecki served as the pool reporter at the Arizona practice on Thursday. We present the report in its entirety, as provided by the NFL (with small formatting changes). Of note is the fact that some Cardinals' scout teams players are dressing up as Steelers, players who are on the injury report as having limited participation in practice may have been a bit more active than one might believe, and Neil Rackers had an iffy day.

Well, the rains came about an hour into practice, but the Arizona Cardinals continued to work through a steady drizzle before completing a 2-hour and 15-minute practice at the Tampa Bay Bucs’ practice facility. Coach Ken Whisenhunt kept most of the work on the center field of the three-field complex.

“I think it helped us because it didn’t bother us,” Whisenhunt said of the conditions. “We focused on what we were doing and I think we had really good work again today. Who knows? It’s not supposed to be like this on game day, but if it does rain at least we got a lot of work in with wet balls and operating on a field that is a little bit wet. The thing I was most pleased with was that we were able to continue our work and perform without letting it distract us.”

This was the team’s first practice rain since the memorable rainstorm last Christmas Day in Tempe, Az.

“But it was about 40 degrees that day and it rained a lot harder than this,” Whisenhunt said. “It was a constant rain. We had puddles on the field and that’s something you never see in Arizona. It was miserable.”

Arizona’s injured defensive players Travis LaBoy and Antonio Smith both worked extensively while running back J.J. Arrington did some offensive reps, but was held out of special teams’ work at the end of practice.

“We were worried about him slipping and doing something to his knee,” Whisenhunt said of Arrington.

For the two major practices here, the Cardinals have had scout defensive players wear the jersey numbers for Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.

“It helps our receivers and Kurt (Warner) in order to identify defenses,” Whisenhunt said of the common practice method. “Where a certain defensive player shows up, you may have plays predicated off of that. Now, this is something we do all year on a weekly basis. I saw one thing this year before Tennessee played Pittsburgh they had a player running around on the field with a big long wig hanging out of his helmet to impersonate Troy (Polamalu).”

Cardinals field goal kicker Neil Rackers had one close call with the left upright in special team drills. He bounced a 37-yarder off the upright that went through for a good kick and later barely snuck another kick through from the same distance before drilling his last kick, a 42-yarder deep solid perfect.

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Thursday's Injury Report

Not much has changed since Wednesday. As expected Hines Ward practiced on Thursday. Meanwhile, the Arizona players whose participation was limited on Wednesday was also limited in Thursday.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Practice Report

DID NOT PARTICIPATE IN PRACTICE

Wednesday

WR Hines Ward (knee)

FULL PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE

Thursday

WR Hines Ward (knee)


ARIZONA CARDINALS

Practice Report

LIMITED PARTICIPATION IN PRACTICE

Wednesday

RB J.J. Arrington (knee)
P Ben Graham (left groin)
DE Travis LaBoy (biceps)
DE Antonio Smith (knee)


Thursday

RB J.J. Arrington (knee)
P Ben Graham (left groin)
DE Travis LaBoy (biceps)
DE Antonio Smith (knee)

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James Harrison named
Defensive Player of the Year ~ Again

It is awards day for the Steelers.

The NFL has issued the following press release:

Pittsburgh Steelers LB JAMES HARRISON is the 2008 GMC SIERRA DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR, GMC and the National Football League announced today.

Harrison recorded a career-high 101 tackles and totaled 16 sacks during the season, including three in Week 1 in the Steelers’ 38-17 win over the Houston Texans. In Week 11, Harrison had a sack, forced a fumble and recorded a safety in one play, and also returned an interception 33 yards in the Steelers’ 11 – 10 win over the San Diego Chargers. Harrison led the Steelers’ defensive effort with nine tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles, both recovered by Pittsburgh, in the Steelers’ 33-10 win over the New England Patriots in Week 13. Harrison was nominated for two GMC Sierra Defensive Player of the Week awards, winning twice.

More than 672,000 fan votes were submitted for the 2008 GMC SIERRA DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR on NFL.com from January 3 through January 29.

Harrison was one of five finalists for the honor. The other finalists were defensive tackle ALBERT HAYNESWORTH of the Tennessee Titans, linebacker JOEY PORTER of the Miami Dolphins, free safety ED REED of the Baltimore Ravens and linebacker DE MARCUS WARE of the Dallas Cowboys.

The five finalists were selected for their outstanding performances throughout the 2008 NFL season. Each week, five nominees were chosen for GMC Sierra Defensive Player of the Week and NFL fans voted for the winner on NFL.com. Those results were used to help determine the finalists.

This is GMC’s fourth year as the official vehicle of the NFL and the second year that GMC will present the Defensive Player of the Year award.
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The NFL offers a look inside the numbers

NFL.com has posted an excellent item on who wins Super Bowls and how.

The short version is that in forty-two Super Bowls the team with the most rushing yards is 35-7 and the team with the most rushing attempts is 36-4.

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Thursday's Interviews: Dick LeBeau

Early last week there were rumors afloat that Dik LeBeau, the youngest looking 71 year old man in America, was leaning towards retiring. That unsubstantiated talk has been largely put down, but if there was any doubt remaining Mr. LeBeau squashed it on Thursday when he met with the media. We have moved his answer to the question about retirement to the top of the NFL's transcript, everything else is offered as it was received from the league:



(on why he wants to continue in his position win or lose): “Well, I think these guys play defense pretty well and it’s kind of fun to coach them. They keep me young, there’s no question about it and that’s the reason why. As long as my health holds up and people want me to work, I think it’d be pretty foolish to leave these guys.”



(on his discussion with Head Coach Mike Tomlin when he decided to retain him as the defensive coordinator): “The first time I talked to Coach Tomlin he called me on the phone and he said I’m real busy, but I just want you to know that I want you to stay. So, after that it was just a matter of meeting with him and figuring out what he wanted to do. That was all I wanted to hear and he told me that and I knew he was real busy, so I didn’t really talk to him for two or three days. But we spent a lot of time in our earlier association with just trying to exchange defensive philosophies and situational calls and things of that nature; they were very productive by far. Before he got completely immersed with the draft and free agency and everything like that we had some real quality time there and it was, I thought, I hope, productive for him and it certainly was for me.”



(on what he thinks about the recent surge of younger head coaches): “I think all coaching is a young man’s job really. I don’t think there’s any question about that. I’ve been blessed. But, is it a young man’s job? I think invariably most coaches are going to say yes. There is something to be said in all walks of employment for experience. The older you are, hopefully, you are more experienced, but sometimes you wonder. But, you should get better every year. Hopefully that is the case.”



(on the scouting department): “Our scouts do a great job. Our Director of Football Operations who coordinates our draft is Kevin Colbert and he’s done a tremendous job of getting people that fit and fit what we do.”



(on if he met any resistance when he was in Cincinnati about using the zone blitz scheme): “No, I was really lucky there too because we were really going far off the diving board in 1983 and 1984. Sam Wyche was the head coach and Coach Wyche was an innovative guy himself. Really the popularization of the no-huddle as a constant theme of attack. I think Sam was one of the very, very first guys that I ever saw do it and as far as I know he was the first guy. Everybody used two minute, but Sam evolved it into an every attack, which is pretty prevalent around the league. Most teams will do it some throughout the season. He was more open perhaps to something that was a little bit more bizarre perhaps than cover-3, so I was lucky there.”



(on the players’ reaction when he first introduced the zone blitz scheme): “The players have always enjoyed the pressure schemes. I move them and they like to move. I’ve never been exposed to very many players that don’t like to put pressure on the quarterback and not just set in one position. The offense makes us adjust to everything, formation, snap count, shifts, no huddles, so it’s fun to make them have to adjust.”



(on if it’s like turning the tables and making the offense adjust to the defense): “Well, try to level the field a little bit for your guys that’s all. Still, they’re going to initiate the action because they’re the ones that have the football. We’re always going to be a stimulus-response type of situation, but hopefully by moving and bringing some different people in different combinations we can deter some of the things they want to do.”



(on if he has seen Mike Tomlin grow as a coach from year one to year two): “I think he’s done a tremendous job both years. I think Coach Tomlin knew what he wanted to do when he came in here. If you check his track record out, he’s achieved at a very early age all through his career. I think that he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for coming into a situation where there was a great coach just leaving and leaving pretty much at the top of his record and the things that Coach Cowher accomplished at Pittsburgh and that’s not an easy situation for any man to step into. Mike went in with his own personality and his own thoughts and I think Coach Tomlin would tell you that he has grown. Hopefully, we all grow every year with what we’re doing, but I think from day one he’s done a tremendous job and I don’t think it can be overstated the degree of difficulty to follow a man that is successful as Coach Cowher was there. I think you’ve said all you need to say about Coach Tomlin when you say that he was successful in a difficult situation.”



(on if the Cardinals offense is similar to what Coach Whisenhunt did with the Steelers): “Yeah, I mean sure. We’re going to see some of the things he’s done. He has a great cast of characters to orchestrate it. The quarterback has so more experience and accuracy. That, to me, is the main ingredient that he brings; he’s so accurate. It’s not like he doesn’t have anybody out there to catch the ball. He has three tremendous wide receivers. No one talks about their tight ends, but they’re big, really big and they can really catch the ball. I know we’re going to see some things that Coach Whisenhunt’s done before, we’re going to see some things he hasn’t done. I know he’ll have some surprises. The thing that makes him so formidable are the people they have doing them.”



(on why his players play so well): “It’s because of their character. They’re competitive and they live to play, so we try not to hurt them, we just try to stay out of their way. I’m blessed. We have a tremendous group of young men. You would be proud to call any one of them a member of your family. They’re going to defend everybody and they’re going to play every minute they have left. I’m probably the most proud of that: how they play. I’d like to claim some credit for that, but the people that they are, they’re just tremendous competitors. They’re going to play, I promise you that.”



(on not being able to prepare for every possible play the Cardinals will use): “Well, a wise man once said, ‘He who defends everything, defends nothing.’ That was Fredrick the Great, the unifier of the Prussian states. I think he knew what he was talking about. He had a pretty good competitive record.”



(on how Arizona QB Kurt Warner said he hates him): “That’s quite a compliment. On the other hand, I’m a great admirer of Kurt Warner. I think his story is great. I think his career is great. I think he’s a tremendous example of all that’s right in professional athletics. I’m a tremendous fan of Kurt Warner. I admire him. I hope he doesn’t do too well on Sunday, but I really think he’s a great man and a great player.”



(on if he thinks this is the best group of athletes he’s had as a whole package defensively): “Again, I’ve been blessed. We had Kevin Green and Greg Lloyd on the outside and Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown on the inside and you’re not going to get very many better players than that to work with. I think, from the standpoint of numbers, from what they produce, the numbers speak for themselves. I think maybe the game is progressed to where what they’ve done certainly has merit, but I wouldn’t compare them to other teams. But, as far as people, I’ve never had better people to coach either on or off the field. They’re special.”



(on when he first got to Pittsburgh and how much of a melting pot of defensive ideas it was with him, Dom Capers and Bill Cowher): “Well, there’s no question that it was a melting pot. All three of us had been defensive coordinators. Coach Cowher had the final voice because he was the head coach and Dom Capers was our defensive coordinator. I certainly was not a prime mover at first, but we didn’t talk much about the fire zones early. But as we got in to where people were comfortable with what we were going to do, we began to get into some different pressures and we had success with them. So, it was just an out-pouring of a lot of guys who had some good defensive exposure.”



(on what year he started using the zone blitz): “I’d say about 1984. I started delving into dropping different people. That was the first year that I was the coordinator. I had always had these ideas, but if you’re not the coordinator you don’t get them in. Then, it really grew when we drafted a guy from Arizona by the name of David Fulcher who was a tremendous force blitzing and he could play like a linebacker. Yet, he had pretty good open field capabilities too. Trying to utilize his ability to blitz without having the opponent just always hot-read away from him was one of the first things that got me thinking in some of the things we did.”

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Some love for Special Teams

Keyaron Fox, one of the players who has made a big difference on the Steelers' kick coverage unit, answered questions from the media on Thursday about his time in Kansas City, and other topics. Here is a transcript provided by the NFL:

(on moving on from his experience in Kansas City): “I just have to put my first four years in the league behind me and start out on a new foot.”



(on why things didn’t work out in Kansas City): “There was a reason for it. Maybe there was something about me. Maybe I wasn’t mature enough. Maybe I wasn’t ready to be a part of that organization. Now I get a second chance and I’m happy to be here.”



(on the differences in his experience in Pittsburgh): “I want to give a lot of credit to the ownership that the Steelers have. They have an atmosphere over there where they definitely put the players first. They are concerned about the fans and the image of the Steelers. That reflects down onto the coaches, and from there it trickles down onto the players. It’s a more laid-back atmosphere. You can be yourself and have fun with football. It is still a job. It’s a high-paying industry so on Sundays you have to produce, but Monday through Saturday it is really relaxed and chill. You are able to concentrate in a better environment.”



(on whether the environment leads to success or vice versa): “I just realized for the Steelers that this is their sixth time going to the Super Bowl. Maybe that has a lot to do with it. I still give the owners a lot of credit for that.”



(on teams’ abilities to finish games in the fourth quarter): “I don’t really know how we do it here, but the Pittsburgh Steelers do manage to finish a lot of games in the fourth quarter. I think it boils down to people’s experience. There were a lot of guys in Kansas City that didn’t have that experience and that was ultimately the difference.”



(on being on the field for the first play): “I’m really looking forward to getting some contact. Right now, everything is so surreal, but when I get that first piece of contact everything will come back into focus. Then I will realize that this is what it all comes down to. We’re playing against the best team in the NFC. It will be a challenge, but I will still be amped. I will be delivering the contact.”

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Wednesday's Quotes: James Farrior

The NFL is generous, nearly to a fault, in providing transcripts of the media sessions conducted by the players on both teams. Because we do not have to worry about things like "column width" or "advertising revenue" we can pass these along unedited (except for some formatting) and unfiltered.

In that spirit, here are comments made by James Farrior to the media on Wednesday.

(on cutting down on his weight): “I don’t know if there was an exact strategy to do it, it just happened that way. In the offseason, I just slimmed down. I was trying to get as strong as I could.”



(on the money and events surrounding the Super Bowl): “We don’t really think about stuff like that. That’s out of our hands. We can’t control anything like that. It’s not going to help us win the game. Other than just the trivial things, we don’t really care about that.”



(on family nature of team versus business of football): “We all treat each other like family. We respect each other and care about each other. At the end of the day, it’s all about business. That always comes first.”



(on where the current linebacking corps fits in to history of Steelers’ defense): “I’m not sure about that. That is going to be left up to you guys. I feel like we have a good group and a bunch of good athletes and playmakers. We will let you guys decide all of that stuff.”



(on being the backbone of the defense): “We take a lot of pride in that. We all know of the great tradition that the linebackers have had here throughout the years. We just want to uphold our end of the bargain and be accountable. To have those guys looking down on us, it really makes you want to step your game up and play well. I hope we make those guys proud because we look up to all of the former linebackers and we appreciate the work that they put in. We hope that they think well of us.”



(on the chemistry among the linebackers): “I just think we work well. We have a great chemistry together. We all pretty much know what the other is going to be doing. I think we have a good mix of veteran guys: me and [Larry] Foote and James Harrison. And we have the young guys like [LaMarr] Woodley and [Laurence] Timmons. They’ve been coming along great all season. I think the mix of the young and the old is a pretty good combo.”



(on Mike Tomlin’s comments that “it all revolves around Farrior”): “It’s a good feeling to know that you run the ship out there. I take a lot of pride in that. I know that I have a lot of responsibility. At the end of the day, I have to get those guys lined up and get them to do what they do best.”



(on the Cardinals showing more offensive balance in the playoffs): “When you go into the playoffs, you have to have balance. You can’t be one-dimensional. Every team that got into the playoffs all tried to run the ball. If you have that good balance where you are able to run the ball and complement it with the play-action pass, you will be successful. I think that’s what they started doing in the playoffs.”



(on the Cardinals’ running style): “The jab and the counter, those are their two main plays. We have a lot of history with Russ Grimm and we know he likes the jab play. I’m sure he’s going to try that play. The counter will probably be their next play.”



(on if it’s different to play a Cardinals team that isn’t “smashmouth” like the Ravens): “I don’t think so. I think we are going to play the same way regardless of who the opponent is. We are going to try to make it as physical a game as possible.”



(on the Cardinals presenting a challenge): “It will definitely be a challenge for our defense. I don’t think the guys on our side of the ball would have it any other way. We want to be considered as one of the best groups that ever played the game. So why not go up against the best?”



(on the Steelers’ linebacker history affecting his decision to sign): “I didn’t really think about it too much. I was just looking for a job basically.”


(on the departure of Joey Porter): “It just changed the leadership roles a little bit. Joey was our vocal leader as well as our team leader. After he left we lost a lot of that, but I think everybody did a good job of picking it back up and holding everybody accountable.”



(on if he is the vocal leader): “A lot of guys might say that. I’m not really a vocal guy. I don’t really do a lot of talking. I just go out and play and try to lead by example.”



(on if he has studied the Steel Curtain): “I haven’t studied them. I just look at the stuff that comes on TV. I know they had great defenses. I’ve never really sat down and compared our teams.”

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Mike Tomlin named Coach of the Year

Here is breaking news (release) from the NFL:

"Head coach MIKE TOMLIN of the Pittsburgh Steelers is the 2008 Motorola NFL Coach of the Year, Motorola and the NFL announced today.

In 2008, Mike Tomlin continued to rewrite the record books in Pittsburgh, becoming the only head coach in Steelers’ history to win division titles in his first two seasons as he established a franchise record with 22 wins in that time. The Steelers secured the second seed in the AFC, captured the AFC North Division title for the second year in a row, and posted a 6-0 record within their division as part of their 12-4 record. After notching two victories in the postseason, Coach Tomlin will be the youngest head coach to appear in a Super Bowl at the age of 36.

A record number of more than 521,000 fans voted on NFL.com for the head coach whose game planning played the greatest role in his team’s success this season. Voting took place from Wednesday, January 7 through Wednesday, January 21 to determine the 2008 Motorola NFL Coach of the Year. In winning the award, Coach Tomlin also receives the new AURA™ by Motorola, a luxury handset inspired by high-end watches and hand-crafted design that breaks convention and re-establishes artistry in mobile device design and manufacturing.

“As the official wireless communication provider for the NFL, there is a natural tie between our brand and the sport’s great coaches,” said Jean Pierre Le Cannellier, senior director, North America Marketing, Motorola, Inc. “We salute Coach Tomlin for being voted the 2008 Motorola NFL Coach of the Year by the fans and admire those leadership qualities that would make him a champion in any endeavor.”

Tomlin was selected as 2008 Motorola NFL Coach of the Year from among six finalists by voters on NFL.com. The other finalists were head coaches TOM COUGHLIN of the New York Giants, JEFF FISHER of the Tennessee Titans, JOHN HARBAUGH of the Baltimore Ravens, MIKE SMITH of the Atlanta Falcons and TONY SPARANO of the Miami Dolphins.

Motorola's brand has become synonymous with NFL coaches through the coaches' headsets worn during every NFL game. As the wireless communications sponsor of the NFL, Motorola is working with the league to better integrate technology to improve the quality of the game, just as Motorola continuously provides better communications devices to help millions of NFL fans enjoy the game of football in their everyday lives.

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Super Bowl XLIII: The Keys to Victory

We are not sure if all fans of the Steelers are like us, but if they were scheduled to play a high school team this week we could come up with twelve good reasons why the Steelers would lose.

Some call it pessimistic we prefer to think of it as . . . insightful.

However, because we tend to see challenges in every matchup Pittsburgh faces we try not to delve into pregame assessments. This week will be an exception, but we will try to be brief. With that in mind, here are our keys to a sixth Super Bowl victory for the Black & Gold:

The Offense
  1. There is one aspect of play that trumps almost all others ~ turnovers. If the Steelers do not turn the football over their chances for winning will improve dramatically. If they turn the ball over, especially if they do so more than once, Monday is going to be a lousy day.

  2. This game reminds us a great deal of the playoff game versus Indianapolis (January 15, 2006). In that game the Steelers possessed the ball for an incredible 34:52, whereas Indianapolis had the ball for 25:08 ~ and the Steelers still won by only three points.

    If the Steelers can possess the ball for something approaching 34:00, and don't turn the football over, they will win the game ~ perhaps by only three points.
The Defense
  1. There is one aspect of play that trumps almost all others ~ turnovers. If the Steelers force turnovers their chances of winning will improve dramatically.

  2. We don't know if we mentioned this but this game reminds of the January 2006 playoff game versus Indianapolis. In that game Peyton Manning, known for a quick release and not being sacked too often, (he was sacked a total of 17 times during the regular season) was dropped by the Steelers five times. Moreover, in that game pressure tended to come up the middle (James Farrior had 2.5 sacks) exactly where Mr. Manning could see it best. A similar approach against Kurt Warner is critical.

  3. We have see others mention this, but it bears repeating ~ the Steelers secondary has to minimize big gains by the Cardinals' offense. If special teams does their job (see below), a long field will be the Steelers' best ally.
The Special Teams
  1. On October 12, 2008 the Cardinals defeated the Dallas Cowboys by a score of 30-24. What is stunning about that is that the Cardinals scored three of their four touchdowns on special teams ~ two kickoff returns and a blocked punt for the winning score. The Steelers have not faced a better special teams group this season.

  2. Mitch Berger is going to have to have a career day. During the 2008 regular season the Arizona offense scored 45 touchdowns. On average their touchdown drives were 6.93 plays in duration and covered 63.39 yards. The Arizona offense had 11 touchdown drives of ten plays or more; and to put that in perspective they had 13 touchdown drives of five plays or fewer. Yes, the Cardinals' offense is explosive, but keep them on a long field and the odds of them scoring decline significantly.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mike Tomlin's Wednesday Press Conference

Here is the transcript of Mike Tomlin's Wednesday press conference provided by the NFL:

(opening statement): “It’s been kind of a regular Wednesday morning for us. We came over to this facility and had our normal Wednesday morning routine of a game week. We met special teams-wise this morning, had the team meeting, and then broke up into offensive and defensive units and then positions from there. So we continue to put one foot in front of the other, and prepare ourselves to hopefully be our best on Sunday. Hopefully that’s enough to have a winning performance.”



(on preparing for trick plays): “It is not something that you can prepare for this week. It’s something that you build into your football. When we run to the football defensively, at times it looks like we are just swarming, but we are actually running with a purpose. It’s part of everything we do, it’s built in. People have rules of pursuit, and hopefully our rules will take care of us in regards to those things. If you are a pass player first, you play pass. If you are a backside deep defender, you have what we call a ‘21-man rule’– you’ve got to keep everybody inside and in front, etc. It’s part of our football. You run your antennas up in a week like this because you know they are very capable and have a great deal of success with those kinds of plays. But we can’t get enamored by it this week. We have to hope and trust that how we go about our business is sufficient in that area.”



(on his mindset after taking over as head coach): “The number one thing I was concerned about coming in was establishing a sound base of our football – laying the groundwork of our core beliefs. At the same time of course, you are multi-tasking, you are preparing to play and compete. You are getting to know guys and form relationships and all of those things. You can lose sight of the big picture when you try to address those things individually. For me on a daily basis, I wanted to make sure that I kept my focus on laying the foundation for what I perceive to be our football and how we are going to operate. And along the way, some special things happened. Relationships, appreciation for what people are willing to do, not necessarily what they are capable of doing, but what they are willing to do. We have an unselfish group. We have great leadership. Those guys genuinely care for one another, and I think it shows in how they play the game.”



(on if there was a transition between playing the Ravens’ run game and getting ready for the Cardinals’ pass game): “It’s going to be tough, but not because the Ravens are who they are. That’s just the natural challenge that the NFL schedule presents you week to week. Different teams have different strengths, different areas of emphasis in terms of how they play. It’s usually geared toward their strengths; who their dominant players are. We respect that process, that’s why win or lose we turn the page week to week, we wipe the slate clean and we start to prepare and focus on the opponent and the challenge that is in front of us. Big challenge this week, and glad that we have two weeks to do it.”



(on the success of defending opposing wide receivers in the second half of the season): “I think that over the course of the season, teams grow, units grow, and individuals grow. We grew in the right direction individually and collectively from a defensive standpoint. Not just the secondary, but the front as well. Part of great pass defense is rush. You can’t have one without the other. We’ve been consistently applying pressure to the quarterback, and that’s our emphasis, not sacks. Sacks don’t tell the story. It’s to be disruptive, it’s to apply pressure. We’ve done that, and the guys on the back end have done a nice job. Through it all, we’ve had some ups and downs. Some guys had the opportunity to step up and deliver quality play for us. We had some injuries in the secondary. I think that the emergence of a guy like William Gay, who stepped up and gave us quality play. Tyrone Carter, when called upon, stepped up and gave us quality play. It’s been one of the many reasons that we’ve been consistent. It’s about the men. It’s about what they do when they play. They’ve played to the standard.”



(on how the offensive line has answered the call this year): “As far as I’m concerned, that’s still the question as we sit here today. We are always going to be a team in the process of growth, gelling if you will, and coming together. I thought that our guys have done a nice job of focusing on the things they can control, their level of preparation, and their level of cohesiveness. Along the way, we’ve had bumps in the road. We’ve lost some guys and had to adjust the plan, but the focus has been consistent. The guys come into the building every day understanding that we need to get better individually, we need to get better collectively, and the only way to do that is to put your hand in the pile, if you will. That’s a group that does. They spend a lot of time together formally and informally. They take a great deal of pride in how they play. They’ve been highly criticized, and I’ve appreciated that. It’s helped me do my job. Please continue to do that. We’ll squeeze one more performance out of them. Hopefully it’s a winning one.”



(on defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s longevity and energy): “I’m focused on ’09 at this point, and 50 years is a long time. Dick is unique. I don’t know if I’m that unique yet. We’ll see. Dick is a pleasure to come to work with. He is very similar to Monte (Kiffin) in one critical way, and that is they have a legitimate passion for the game of football. They have a unique way of conveying that to players. Age is not an issue with these guys. They have great rapport. They are great communicators. More than anything though, the love affair with the game is very similar and very evident if you spend any length of time around either man.”



(on safety Ryan Clark’s presence in the middle of the field): “Hopefully it’s an intimidating one. These guys are professional, particularly this bunch that we play this week. They are big physical receivers. They are not going to be intimidated. They are going to do what it is they do. Hopefully we do what it is we do. Ryan has been a big part of that. I think he receives a lot of attention for a few plays that happened, some big hits. When I think about Ryan, I think about the ordinary things he does extremely well. He is a great communicator. He is a hub of communication for our secondary. He gets people lined up. He keeps the ball in front of him. It’s a unique job playing opposite of Troy (Polamalu) sometimes because Troy works outside the box. Ryan has got some experience in that. He played opposite another unique guy in Sean Taylor. He prides himself in playing opposite of men like that – keeping the ball in front and doing the ordinary things extraordinarily well. He is a big cog in our machine. We appreciate what he’s done for us. He’s just been a pleasure.”



(on the impact of coaching staff continuity:) “Enormous. It’s not much continuity in today’s NFL. Anytime you have an opportunity to maintain that, I think it gives you an edge. This coaching profession is a small fraternity. Of course I had a bunch of knowledge about those men and what they were capable of. I knew most of them on a personal level, so it wasn’t anything ground-breaking from that standpoint. We were able to come in and come together and get about the business of continuing to play great defense here. The issue is winning for us, and great defense is a part of that. Having the ability to retain those guys, of course, was pivotal.”



(on his time as a graduate assistant coach at the University of Memphis): “Lack of sleep would be the first thing that comes to mind. That’s probably similar to everyone’s graduate assistant position. It was exciting for me. It was my first opportunity to coach defensive football. Memphis was a unique place in that it wasn’t a dominant program, but they had dominant defense. They embraced that identity. I think that was the beginning of my mentality regarding playing defense. The mentality those guys had, they were intent on beating you up. When they stepped into a stadium, they played the game in that manner. They had that air of confidence about them, and I fed off of that. I think it was a fundamental basis for how I approached defense.”



(on wide receivers coach Randy Fichtner) “Randy has been an awesome addition to our staff. Of course I’ve known Randy for a long time. I met him in Memphis years ago. He is a quality football coach, a great communicator, is passionate about the wide receiver position, a western Pennsylvania man so course his bloodlines runs deep in terms of appreciating what Steeler football is about.”



(on whether the Buccaneers’ knowledge of the Raiders’ offense in Super Bowl XXXVII was overstated, and how that might apply for Cardinals’ head coach Ken Whisenhunt against the Steelers): “I really think it was overstated. It’s a good story. The reality is when we were on that Super Bowl run, we faced that offense every day all season – training camp, organized team activities, etc. If you look at the teams that we played in the playoffs, we played San Francisco coached by Steve Mariucci – west coast (offense). We played the Philadelphia Eagles, coached by Andy Reid – west coast. Then we played the Raiders, coached by Bill Callahan – west coast. So we had played the same offense three weeks in a row, and besides that, we had seen it all year. It got to the point that you didn’t have to draw new scout cards for the week. We played the same offense three weeks in a row.”



(on what James Farrior has meant to the Steelers, and on his past playing encounters with Tomlin): “James knows where I am if he wants to get a shot (laughing). I can’t defend myself anymore. He is spectacular for us. What he does inside the white lines is documented. He is a Pro Bowl player and rightfully so. He is an unquestioned leader on our football team. The guys look to him. He provides quality leadership for them. He is the kind of leader I embrace; very flat-lined emotionally. He doesn’t ride the emotional roller-coaster. He is very consistent on a day-to-day basis on how he approaches his business, and really kind of a blueprint for doing it at a high level for a long time in this league. I think a lot of our young players look up to him. A lot of guys gravitate to him. A lot of guys not only look to him in terms of how they prepare to play football games, but how they prepare over a 12-month calendar. This is a guy who is in great physical condition 12 months a year, takes a couple of weeks off, and then gets back about the business of preparing himself for the next one. Guys followed that model. He had a big following this offseason, and I think it’s one of the reasons why we are still in this thing.”



(on the status of Hines Ward’s knee): “The knee is awesome. It’s great. I usually give him Wednesday off, so we are going to stick to the plan. We’ll see where he is tomorrow. It won’t be an excuse regardless of the condition of the knee.”

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Cardinals' Wednesday Pool Report

John Czarnecki served as the pool reporter at the Arizona practice on Wednesday. We present the report in its entirety, as provided by the NFL (with small formatting changes). There is not much here, except for those Steelers' fans who were hoping that Anquan Boldin might not be ready to play.

The NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals conducted a fast-paced practice for two hours and 15 minutes at the Bucs’ facility and when it was over as many as 20 players, guys like Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald, hung around to keep working on individual aspects of their game.

“A lot of those guys have been doing that all year and it’s helped us, too,” Arizona Coach Ken Whisenhunt said of the post-practice period. Overall, Whisenhunt was pleased with his team’s first work here. “It was much better than our normal Wednesday practices because we installed much of our offense and defense last week in Arizona,” he said, “so this was more review than working on new stuff like during the regular season.”

All of Arizona’s injured players like linebacker Travis LaBoy and defensive end Antonio Smith practiced although on a limited basis. Wide receiver Anquan Boldin participated fully and showed no effects of a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the Divisional Playoff game against Carolina.

“He looked good today and he also looked good late last week,” Whisenhunt said of Boldin. “We took a little easier on him early last week just to be safe.”

The Cardinals opened practice, as is their custom, with 20 minutes of walk-through work for the both the offense and defense and then 12 minutes of special teams work before joining together for team stretching. In the remainder of the drills, the players were in helmets and shoulder pads and shorts.

Most of the team periods would last between eight to 10 plays. Interestingly, in one offensive pass skeleton drill backup Matt Leinart attempted one more pass than starter Kurt Warner. However, in another full team drill Warner took all the snaps as he did in the final five-play session of the day.

But the best pass completion of the day might have been third-stringer Brian St. Pierre’s sideline throw and catch by rookie Lance Long, a practice player, against the first team defense.

“We like to keep all of our quarterbacks involved,” Whisenhunt said. “It’s the only way to keep them sharp and I think that’s important. Basically, we are trying to keep to the same routine as we possibly can. For the last four weeks our (practice) tempo has been good as it has been all season.”

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