Sunday, February 01, 2009

A Game of Inches

"It hurts so bad to be so close to being a champion," Fitzgerald said after the game. "You got to tip your hat to them."

There were a lot of big plays in Super Bowl XLIII, but none was more significant than James Harrison's 100 yard interception return for a touchdown to end the first half. I studied the play tonight, watching it about 80 times trying to figure out
  • How did Pittsburgh manage to confuse Kurt Warner, who played at such a high level throughout the playoffs, into throwing an interception at the two yard line on first and goal?
  • How did James Harrison, a linebacker, roughly the tenth-fastest player on the field, manage to run the length of the field without getting tackled? Full-length pick-sixes happen all the time, but generally they come from defensive backs. A linebacker should not be able to outrun the entire team the length of the field.
  • Who should be blamed for this and who should get the credit?
Let's start with the play-call. First and goal from the two, 18 seconds left, no timeouts. Zona put Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin out left, had Fitz run a decoy route and threw a slant to Boldin. I thought this was the perfect play call.

But then I watched NBC's halftime show. Cris Collinsworth noted that the Cards had Tim Hightower move across the formation to block, rather than sending him out to receive as they had been doing for most of the game. Collinsworth said "When he did that, that's what allowed Harrison to drop back underneath. Had they done what they'd been doing the entire half, which is put that back in motion to dictate coverage to the Pittsburgh Steelers, I don't think [Harrison] would have been there." So maybe there is some blood on the hands of Ken Whisenhunt and/or Todd Haley.

Mike Holmgren also noted that the Cards had three downs to work with, so Warner shouldn't have thrown the pass unless he "saw it clearly." I counted the time from when the snap hit Warner's hands to when the ball left his hands, and it was less than it takes me to say "one-one-thousand." I don't think Warner, who played a brilliant game and should have been named MVP in a losing effort, should be blamed as much as Dick LeBeau should be lauded.

Pittsburgh ran a zone blitz, as they're wont to do. Tony Dungy called it an "unbelievable job by Dick LeBeau. They set it up to make it look like an all-out blitz, but James Harrison's not coming - and it fooled Warner." Harrison, more known for sacking quarterbacks than intercepting passes, dropped into coverage while defensive backs and linebackers blitzed. Harrison watched Warner's eyes, made a good read, jumped the route, caught the ball, and then ran it back 100 yards, avoiding just about every Cardinal en route.

Studying the play the first thing I noticed was that Cardinals left tackle Mike Gandy got confused. He looked to block Harrison, but Harrison didn't rush. Too late Gandy tried to stop a blitzing Lawrence Timmons, who got most of the way to Kurt Warner and may have affected the throw. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is known for masterminding these sort of zone blitz plays which allow linebackers like Timmons and Harrison to make plays on the quarterback and the ball. Gandy was the pawn this time. He chose the wrong guy to block. The player he wanted to block went back into pass coverage while another linebacker sprinted past him.

After the ball was intercepted, Gandy turned and ran down the field pursuing Harrison.
He ran hard and never gave up on the play, eventually coming within inches of knocking Harrison out of bounds inside the Arizona ten yard line.
But there was a brief moment around midfield where Gandy was not sprinting 100%.

The next player I found culpable was Leonard Pope. Pope's role in this play is an interesting story in itself, as he is not Arizona's primary tight end. Their starting tight end throughout the season was Stephen Spach, but he was injured during Arizona's wild-card playoff victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Since Spach's injury, the Cards have played both Pope and Ben Patrick (who scored Zona's first touchdown in the Super Bowl) at tight end.

On this play Pope lined up on the right edge of the line. He appeared confused as to whether he was supposed to block or run a pattern and didn't really do either. But perhaps that was actually what he was supposed to do, to provide an emergency outlet if Warner needed him on the right side. After the ball was intercepted, Pope ran hard after Harrison. But he took a bad angle and wound up behind Harrison. If he had gone more diagonally, he would have had a chance to catch him from the side. He nearly caught up to Harrison at the 45 yard line, but executed his tackle very poorly. He wound up tackling Kurt Warner, who was fighting through a Deshea Townsend block, and inadvertently shot Harrison forward. Would Stephen Spach have been able to make a play and save the touchdown? We'll never know. But this play shows how an injury to a little-known starter like Spach can make a difference in winning and losing games. Players like Spach do not show up much in the stat sheet, but they have impact nonetheless. Every injury matters.

Gandy and Pope are not the guys you are counting on to make a tackle in this situation, however. You can't expect them to chase down prey on a 100-yard dead sprint. The players you'd expect to get to Harrison eventually are the receivers and running backs. So I watched each of them to see where they fell short.

Steve Breaston was lined up on the right side of the field. He ran a short pattern, saw the ball was intercepted, then ran all the way across both sides of the field before contacting Harrison at the two yard line and knocking him into the end zone. He tackled Harrison while propelling him into the end zone. Larry Fitzgerald was also trying to tackle Harrison when Breaston arrived, but it didn't appear he was going to be able to get Harrison down before the end zone. Breaston was out of view for most of NBC's shot of the play, so I don't know what kind of (mis)adventures he may have had during that diagonal journey across the field.Anquan Boldin, the intended receiver of Warner's pass, got into a protracted battle with James Farrior and was essentially taken out of the play.

Rookie running back Tim Hightower, the bottom of the barrel at his position in the NFL, got owned by LaMarr Woodley. Hightower got blocked two different times on the runback by Woodley, once around the Pittsburgh 43 yard line and again at the Arizona 31. The second block was critical. Hightower didn't necessarily need to tackle Harrison at this point, but slowing him down would have allowed Hightower's teammates to get to Harrison before the goal line. Harrison had to jump over Woodley, who was sprawled out making his block, and this slowed him down. But not quite enough. Perhaps most interestingly, Woodley's block was borderline illegal. He easily could have been flagged for an illegal block in the back, negating the touchdown.

The most fascinating player to watch on the play was Larry Fitzgerald, who set playoff records for catches, yards, and touchdowns in a single postseason. Statistically no wide receiver has ever had a playoffs as productive as Fitzgerald did this year. But he could have been better.

On the play, Fitzgerald ran about 110 yards down the field before finally catching up to Harrison inside the five yard line. He and Breaston actually appeared to bring Harrison down inches short of the goal line,
but Harrison's knee and elbow touched Fitzgerald's leg instead of the grass.
Fitz fought through a Troy Polamalu block at midfield (another borderline illegal block), stayed on his feet, and sprinted past Deshea Townsend.

Then it got really interesting. At the Arizona 35 yard line, Lawrence Timmons got a bit of a block on Cardinals offensive lineman Reggie Wells (who had already been flagged for a facemask earlier in the play). Wells was blocked into Fitzgerald's way, and Larry was forced to run about four yards out of bounds in order to avoid Wells. He then ran smack into Antrel Rolle.

Antrel Rolle is a cornerback for the Cardinals. He was watching the play from the sidelines, oblivious to Harrison's pursuers. Rolle was standing closer to the field than any of the other Cardinals players or coaches, and he never saw Fitz coming. Their collision knocked Fitzgerald back and slowed him down. There is no doubt that Fitzgerald would have caught Harrison if he had not collided with Rolle.

Fitzgerald ran down Harrison with determination reminiscent of Don Beebe's chase of Leon Lett in Super Bowl XXVII. But you can see that he was just a bit lethargic starting the chase, especially when juxtaposed with his effort near its end. It was as if he was expecting Harrison to be tackled, and just going through the motions after the INT. If he had gone all-out from the beginning, he likely would have tracked him down before it was too late.This game was so close. It's amazing to think the Cardinals had a fourteen point swing go against them on this play and still almost won the game. It's even more amazing to think about how close they were to tackling Harrison and how they probably would have won the game if they had. If Larry Fitzgerald had gone 100% for 100% of the play instead of 95% of it. If Tim Hightower was just a little bit faster. If the Cards had stuck him on the bench where he belongs. If Leonard Pope was just a little bit smarter. If Mike Gandy had sprinted the entire play. If Antrel Rolle had taken his head out of his ass.

Or you can look at it from Pittsburgh's perspective. If Troy Polamalu hadn't gotten a piece of Fitzgerald, if LaMarr Woodley hadn't blocked Tim Hightower twice, if Lawrence Timmons hadn't disrupted the pass and blocked Reggie Wells, if Deshea Townsend hadn't blocked Kurt Warner, if James Farrior hadn't blocked Anquan Boldin, if Dick LeBeau hadn't called that play...and of course, if James Harrison, chosen as the league's best defensive player this season, hadn't made that interception and runback, then it's likely Pittsburgh would have lost and the Arizona Cardinals would be world champions.


Blogger Hoedeman said...

My favorite post of yours ever, probably. Obviously just been reading Super Bowl article after Super Bowl article this morning--plenty of stuff on Ben and Santonio and Tomlin and Mr. Rooney and WHAT THE STEELERS MEAN TO THIS CITY (a lot, apparently), and all that. Nice to get some really in-depth detail-oriented analysis of the greatest play in Super Bowl history. I'll certainly be watching this play (and the rest of the game) many times in the coming days. This one is special. This is the reason it's worth the 'effort' of hardcore fandom. Thanks for your Steelers support all year. It was a magical season.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous jeremiah said...

This is a great breakdown. Make sure to include photo credits and submit it to a sports website for publishing.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spectacular analysis. I agree with the comment that urges you to publish it more widely.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Zach said...

love the discussion of Larry Fitzgerald's role, amazing!

7:37 PM  
Blogger Spencetron said...

Where is the analysis of the porn clip after Fitzgerald's second TD? I wish I had seen this, but alas I have the reliable Cox (kind of ironic that the cock was not on cox) rather than Comcast.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Tilt said...

Amazing analysis. Countdown to next season started already lol. I hope to be reading some draft analysis perhaps?

11:53 PM  
Blogger gaamblor said...

great point about rolle i never saw that but its amazing to see now, though shouldn't fitzgerald get a penalty for running out of bounds for 40 yards? i don't know the rule but that can't only apply to punt coverage

12:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only thing I truly wish you would have noticed is the fact that the second block on Hightower was in the back. Very clear foul that should have negated the touchdown, and the Steelers win of the game. Terrible officiating won this game. Both teams made their mistakes, but the officials blew the game.

4:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

amazing to think about how close they were to tackling Harrison and how they probably would have won the game if they had. If Tim Hightower was just a little bit faster.

I can't believe you have the nerve to say if Hightower had been faster on this play. He was in the perfect position to do one of three things: slow Harrison down, tackle him, or knock him out of bounds. The only thing that stopped him was a blatant but uncalled personal foul. The Steelers should not have won this game.

4:45 AM  
Blogger GnightMoon said...

I studied Woodley's block on Hightower, and it was close. I'm not certain it was illegal.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please review the rulebook before you make the claim that you don't know if the block was illegal. It was. A defender in position to make a play on the returner, pushed in the back clearing a zone for the returner to run for a TD. It is clear cut. The only thing that could be said is that Hightower likely knew he was there because you can see him look over his shoulder. I still cannot believe that you blame him for not running hard enough when, at the time the illegal block in question was made, he was actually about a hard in front of Harrison. There were questionable calls that went against both teams, but the majority were called against or not called in favor of the Cardinals, causing them to lose the game. I feel your analysis of the game is incomplete and inadequate, and you should look more objectively at what actually happened.

3:12 PM  
Blogger GnightMoon said...

The question is whether or not he was actually pushed in the back. He was pushed in the shoulder area. It could be argued that he was pushed more in the side than in the back.

5:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Please review the play again. One hand was on his shoulder. I agree with you there. But the other hand was in the middle of his back. He was behind him, and pushed him down by shoving him in the back. You also have to consider that the rule is written to prevent exactly what happened, a cheap shot block on a player in a position to stop the run back.

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can say it does look like Woodly came in at a slight angle opposed to directly from behind, but it is not a matter of where he comes from it is a matter of how he blocks. One hand is on Hightower's shoulder, which is part of his back, and the other is at the small of his back below the numbers. There is no way this could or should be considered a clean block.

8:23 PM  
Blogger John said...

This was by far the best post of your football writing career. I've forwarded it on to a bunch of friends. Well done.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think we can agree that if Larry Fitzgerald ran in bounds that he probably would have been blocked.

4:12 PM  

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