Pittsburgh knows stopping athletic receiver a nearly impossible task
Pittsburgh knows stopping athletic receiver a nearly impossible task
by Gregg Rosenthal, NBCSports.com
TAMPA, Fla. - Larry Fitzgerald is the type of receiver that keeps defenders up at night, asking questions that don't have an answer. How can you stop a wide receiver that is always open, no matter how well covered he is?
"The big thing is people are in position to make plays," Steelers all-world safety Troy Polamalu noted this week. "It's just Larry Fitzgerald is better than everybody else. He's able to out-jump people, He's able to catch the ball. Even when he's not out-jumping people."
Pittsburgh players, coaches, and fans rightly feel confident that their defense is impenetrable, but Fitzgerald breaks the rules. Sometimes the perfect play-call and execution are not enough.
Let's rewind to a first-and-10 play against the Seahawks in November. Fitzgerald started the play by shaking off press coverage before taking his long, loping strides up the sideline. Seattle cornerback Kelly Jennings recovered quickly and ran step-for-step with his taller opponent. Jennings was in perfect position and Seattle had the right coverage called to stop Fitzgerald, with their safety shading to him. Fitzgerald looked boxed in, but none of it mattered.
With a sliver of real estate to operate, Fitzgerald saw the ball coming and managed to free his body from Jennings, who had on arm on him. Fitzgerald timed his leap, caught the ball above Jennings' outstretched arms, and somehow got his feet down before spilling out of bounds. The play would be more amazing if Fitzgerald wasn't doing it every week.
"You can't try to prepare for it," teammate Antrel Rolle says. "You can't try to play his game because he's better than you at his game."
Fitzgerald's practice catches have become the stuff of legend in Arizona - every player has a story that tops the others. They try to describe what happened, but words fail. Most of the stories end in "like wow."
"I was kind of in awe," rookie receiver teammate Early Doucet said about one play. "I had to keep myself together because we were in practice."
The rest of the country can empathize with Doucet's awe. Fitzgerald has already broken Jerry Rice's record for yards in a single postseason with 419. He can break the record for consecutive 100-yard playoff games, and needs a touchdown to tie another Rice playoff record.
Fitzgerald doesn't just wow his teammates, he makes life easier than them. Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston are likely to see a lot of single coverage Sunday because Fitzgerald will draw so much attention. Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie credits Fitzgerald for his rapid growth because of their practice tussles.
"When I first got here, some of the things that he did, I really didn't believe. But the more I got to go against him, the better he's made me become. And the more I learn from him, the better I become. Every time I line up against him, he's got that look in his eye, and I've got it in my eye."
Kurt Warner admits that he had to forget some of his tenets to playing quarterback and learn the Larry rules.
"What I have come to realize is that open for different guys and open for Larry is different than what I have played with in the past. ... The coaches have told me a little bit that sometimes to take a little more chance. As long as you put it in the right spot that he is going give us a better chance to make the play."
Former Cardinals quarterback Josh McCown was the one who first drilled it into Warner's head to just throw the ball up to Fitzgerald - perhaps McCown's most positive contribution to the franchise. Warner, ever the technician, initially felt uncomfortable playing schoolyard football again. But Fitzgerald changes the rules. He uses his strong mid-section to box out defenders, and then out-leaps them. He's like Charles Barkley, if the "Round Mound of Rebound" had Michael Jordan's leaping ability.
All of Fitzgerald's playoff success makes him seem like a sudden star to the casual fan, but he's been wildly productive since he entered the league. No one in NFL history caught more passes in his first five seasons than Fitzgerald. Something extra registered this year, though. Fitzgerald went from a great playmaker to a complete receiver.
Instead of just working his usual long sideline routes, Fitzgerald went over the middle more. He started to break tackles, and improved his blocking downfield. He lost 15 pounds, which he says improves his run-after-catch ability. He spackled any perceived holes in his game. The Cardinals made him the richest receiver in football last offseason, and he responded by working harder.
Talk to anyone around the Cardinals and they will say that Fitzgerald gets better every day because of his attention to detail in meetings and practice. "I think Larry has worked very hard on some of the things that he wanted to improve on in his game," Ken Whisenhunt lauded.
The great ones never feel they are truly great yet; they want more. Steelers players Hines Ward and Ike Taylor both called Fitzgerald the league's best receiver, but he doesn't want to hear it. Fitzgerald said Wednesday that he feels "weird" being regarded as a dominant player, and simply that he "aspires" to be great. Ask him what he needs to improve, and it's clear he's a student of the game. He is still learning how to disguise his intentions to a defender, and how to run his routes more precisely each time out.
"The route running, the understanding of coverages, how to attack a defender. You see those things starting to click a little bit," Warner said about Fitzgerald's learning curve Wednesday. "You see him start to get a better understanding. You see him start to be able to slow the game down, where he can actually utilize the some of the things we've talked about."
An improving Larry Fitzgerald is a grotesque thought for the rest of the league. Which leads us back to our original question: How can you stop him?
Teammates and opponents agreed that the play is basically over if you let Fitzgerald go up for the ball. Others said that to beat him, you must disrupt his timing. Beat him up, and take some shots.
"As a safety, I'm going to hit him any time that I can. Try to tire him out," Steelers backup Anthony Smith said.
Surging outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley had the most sensible suggestion. Don't let Fitzgerald get a chance.
"To slow Larry down, you gotta go back there and hit the quarterback. You gotta hit the guy that is most dangerous. And the most dangerous is the guy with the ball."
Troy Polamalu went with the shrugged shoulders approach. "I don't really know (how to stop him). No one has been able to contain him yet."
Larry Fitzgerald has taken his game to rarefied levels this season, but his biggest step remains. He's a half-dozen long fingertip catches away from lasting greatness.
"Someone once asked me to sum up what Larry Fitzgerald has been able to do in 30 seconds or less," Cardinals special teams ace Sean Morey said Wednesday. "I thought of this W.E.B. Duboise quote: ‘There is in this world no such force as the force of a man determined to rise.' That encapsulates what's going on with Fitz."
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