Super Bowl XLIII: Dick LeBeau vs Ken Whisenhunt – Who Won the Game Within the Game?

The popular story line of Super Bowl XLIII was of course Mike Tomlin against Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm. The man Dan Rooney chose to lead the Steelers vs. the men to whom he said, “thanks, but no thanks.”

Engrossing as that was, it wasn’t the true story. The real story was how would Dick LeBeau, one of the greatest defensive minds in league history, stack up against Whisenhunt, an emerging offensive wizard.

Heading home from the game I told my wife that if the truth were to be told, Whisenhunt out coached his former colleague. I repeated much the same on the phone to my folks at about 2:00 am Buenos Aires time.

James Harrison, James Harrison Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison Super Bowl Pick Six, James Harrison Super Bowl interception, Steelers vs Cardinals, Dick LeBeau Super Bowl XLIII

James Harrison begins his record breaking pick six in Super Bowl XLIII. Photo Credit:

LeBeau vs. Whisenhunt: The Obvious Answer Isn’t Always the Right One

Browse though major sports sites, and that is also the story line the national media is pushing. But as is often the case, the first, seemingly obvious, answer is frequently incorrect.

For LeBeau partisans, the numbers do not paint a pretty picture. Kurt Warner passed for 377 yards, and three touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald caught 6 passes for 127 yards and two touchdowns. Arizona scored 2 touchdowns inside of 10 minutes in the fourth quarter.

  • Larry Fiztgerald scored on what was perhaps one of the most explosive offensive plays vs. the Steelers in their history.

These are impressive numbers in any circumstance, and they look all the more impressive when you consider that Arizona did this against the NFL’s number one defense.

The Arizona Cardinals deserve ever pat on the back they get for almost engineering the greatest Super Bowl comeback in NFL history. Praise is justified.

But pats on the back are no substitute for a Lombardi Trophy, just as piling up more yards on offense will never supplant the most important stat: the final score.

So while we tip the hat to Ken Whisenhunt, Russ Grimm, and Todd Haley for making some really great adjustments, at the end of the day Dick LeBeau got the better of them.


It Is a Four Quarter Game

Because the almost greatest comeback was necessary in the first place.

  • For all of the sound and fury of the Arizona’s fourth quarter rally, the Cardinals littered the first three quarters with squandered opportunities.

The Arizona offense’s failure to get it done during the first 45 minutes is all the more inexcusable for the simple fact that the Steelers offense was leaving too many plays out on the field in the form of two field goals born out of three goal line situations.

Nor do Arizona’s stats indicate that Ken Whisenhunt won the chess match with Dick LeBeau. He and Haley certainly were on to something when they started running Larry Fitzgerald on intermediate routs in the middle of the field in the fourth quarter which unleashed the game’s best receiver. (Dare we ask if it was part of their strategy to wait so long?) Likewise, LeBeau’s decision to blitz more often in the second half backfired on him.

But if Arizona won these battles, LeBeau won a far more critical one.

Did James Harrison Make the Most Critical Defensive Play in Super Bowl History?

Arizona’s interception off a tipped ball as time was expiring in the first half was a gift-wrapped chance to take the lead going into halftime. Not only would they have taken the lead, but they would have taken the momentum going into a second half that would begin with the ball back in Kurt Warner’s hands.

  • Arizona looked like it was going to capitalize on the Steelers mistake. They moved to the one with 18 seconds left (or something like that.)

As if on cue, LeBeau made his master stroke. If Dick LeBeau is master of anything, it is disguising coverage. Steelers piled up close to the line of scrimmage. It looked like LeBeau was going to bring the house. Kurt Warner read blitz, but James Harrison hung back into coverage. Warner did not see him. Warner threw the ball. Harrison saw the ball coming…

  • …and 100 yards later he put up seven points for Pittsburgh.

James Harrison executed, showing once again that he is a player with the will power to alter the outcome of a game.

So kudos to Harrison. You cannot coach that kind of innate ability.

But if you can’t coach that kind of talent in a player, you can position those players to make plays. The play functioned just as the zone blitz is supposed to. LeBeau put James Harrison in position to execute on a play that resulted in what was most likely a 14 point swing in the Pittsburgh’s favor. The Steelers ended up winning by four.

Yes it is true that this argument would be moot had Ben Roethlisberger, Santonio Holmes and the Steelers offense not authored one of the most dramatic closing drives in Super Bowl history.

But they did, just as the defense kept Warner and company bottled up for three quarters while the Steelers offense too often settled for field goals instead of touchdowns.

Super Bowl XLIII Does Not Tarnish the Defense’s Place in Steelers History

This Steelers defense came very, very close to becoming only the second NFL defense to finish first in both yards against the run and yards against the pass.

Through 18 games they only allowed one 300 yard passer, and only had six quarterbacks pass more than 220 yards.

Nonetheless, some pundits look at Kurt Warner’s 377 yards passing and say, “Gee, does this knock the Steelers defense down a peg?”

  • The answer is no, it does not.

Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, and the Arizona offense gave us an electrifying 4th quarter.

But Roger Staubach and his teammates on the Dallas Cowboys came pretty close to pulling off some of their own heroics against the Steel Curtain defenses in Super Bowl X and  again in Super Bowl XIII.

Does anyone say, “yeah, those Steeler defenses of the 70 were great, but Roger Staubach’s two fourth quarter almost comebacks reveal that the original Steel Curtain really had a rusted underbelly?”

Of course not.

This is what happens when offenses and defenses with All Pro, if not Hall of Fame, caliber players go up against each other in the Super Bowl.

Steel Curtain Rising will leave to others to debate the question as to whether or not Kurt Warner belongs in the Hall of Fame. But he is clearly one of the best big play quarterbacks the game has seen. Larry Fitzgerald is probably the best receiver in the football today. They both made great plays.

The Steelers defense also forced a couple of key three and outs, held Arizona’s rushers to 2.8 yards per carry, and made a great play of its own at a critical juncture. And Super Bowl XLIII ended with LaMarr Woodley’s strip sack of Kurt Warner.

How to judge which unit is best?

  • The final score, 27-23, Pittsburgh.

It was close, but in Super Bowl XLIII Dick LeBeau’s defense was better than Ken Whisenhunt’s offense.

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10 thoughts on “Super Bowl XLIII: Dick LeBeau vs Ken Whisenhunt – Who Won the Game Within the Game?

  1. The comparisons to the 1978-79 season’s Super Bowl really put it best. This Steeler defense was the best in the league and in NO-way underperformed in the Super Bowl. It takes 4 quarters to finish a game and the Steeler defense was great in 3 of them. But lets not forget that it was the defense that caused the sack and fumble that sealed the deal!

  2. SirMack and Anonymous,

    Thank you both for commenting.

    (SirMarck) your first impression was mine (as I said in the post) but there are some compelling reasons why the first impression was in err.

    I saw your post this morning, but did not have time to respond. Anonymous made one of my arguments.

    If you think you’ve got more, then by all means let’s begin the debate – just please keep it civil everyone.

  3. I think your analysis is spot on. I thought going into the game that if AZ played at the level they played in the previous 3 playoff games, they were going to score some points, but not run wild. No D could stop them for 60 minutes (although I hoped).

    Therefore I thought the matchup would be our O against their D. It seemed clear early that Hines was not 100%. And Willie was not running like he showed against SD, for whatever reason. Nonetheless, we had a chance to go up big early and the O did not deliver. The goal line offense showed its flaws as it had many other times this year.

    They did get 3 touches but their O gave up 7 points, net 14. The Steelers’ O needed that dramatic comeback because they had not played all that well for the first 58 minutes: 13 points against a middle of the pack defense.

    Bottom line: it was our D that got us to the SB and the D did their job.

  4. If you don’t give AZ’s offense any credit for the safety, Warner & Co. outscored the Pgh defense 21-7. From that view, the Steelers D did an admirable job and deserved to win.

    Luckily, Big Ben and the offense scored just enough points to win after earlier leaving a few on the field.

  5. Mark and Anonymous,

    Thanks to both for your contributions.

    Both of you make very good points.

    Another point in the Steelers Defense’s favor is this:

    Arizona averaged 31 points in the playoffs….

    If you don’t count the safety, then the Steelers D held them to 21 points (and added seven of their own).

    Their regular season average was 26 points per game, so again, we held them to less than that.

    Yards are nice, but points are the ultimate statistic.

  6. I tend not to give as much credit to Ken Whisenhunt as many in the media seem to do, here’s why:

    Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm has too much inside information and talent not to be successful. The effect of a former team coordinator facing his former team will be more evident when the Jets play the Ravens for the first time.

    Whisenhunt was too conservative in the first half chess match, and he didn’t maximize the effect of the talented Larry Fitzgerald on the field, opening up opportunities for other players.

    Whisenhunt, can be a great coach, but let’s slow down the offensive genius tag because he does have the most talented Wide Receiver in Fitzgerald. Just look at Brian Billick, who was called a genius in Minnesota when he and a young Randy Moss worked together in Minnesota, but when Billick went out on his own in Baltimore the productivity of his offensive units were ordinary….OneChuck

  7. The Steelers 2nd half possessions, except for the game winning drive, were underachievement at its best: FG, two 3-and-outs, and a safety. The offense’s failure to put this game out of reach in the third quarter with two 1st & Goals inside the five yard line, followed by it’s inability to get a first down on the next three drives put too much pressure on the defense.
    Arizona underperformed until the 4th quarter, and it wasn’t realistic, as someone observed, that the D cold have totally stopped them.
    Having bit my nails to the cuticle throughout the season (and watching from Israel in the middle of the night to boot), this Steeler fan would not have been at all disappointed with a “boring” end to the game with some Tomlin-loathed “style points.”
    I missed Steeler football in 2008. The lack of run game and pass protection due to the O-line’s problems is the reason. At the same time, one cannot ignore the fact that for all the great defenses and rushing attacks of the Cowher era, the Lombardi trophy did not return to Pittsburgh until Big Ben came along. You gotta have the big-time QB to win the big games. We can only imagine what this team might accomplish in 2009, if the O-line were competent. Wait a minute! They already did accomplish it: Congratulations to Coach Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl Champions! 😀

  8. Complements go out to everyone for the quality of the comments we have on this post.

    Thank you.

    One Chuck, you make some very, very good points. While I do think that Whisenhunt deserves to be recognized as a good head coach, you’re analogy to Billick is a good one. Players like Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner can make an offensive coach look awfully smart.

    And the fact that they both Whisenhunt and Grimm knew a lot about the Steelers defense, is something that has not been mentioned.

    The reason that they kept Larry Fitzgerald under wraps for 3 quarters is still a mystery. Was it part of their plan? Or was LeBeau able to contain him? If so, why did it take them three quarters to make the adjustment?

    As for the points made by our observer from Israel (trust me, I know what its like to watch the games at odd hours), I agree. Had Arizona won, Warner and Fitzgerald would have gotten all of the ink, but the Cardinals defense wouldn’t (and hasn’t) gotten the credit it deserves.

  9. The Steelers blanketed Fitzgerald early in the game, and with all due respect for the Minnesota product, his game was largely highlighted by one 60 yard catch-and-run. Take that away, his overall production was fairly pedestrian. He made a helluva grab in the end zone, but there is no defense designed for 6-foot-5 or a 40 inch vertical.

    The guy’s just that good. There’s no way to purely defend him, except getting to the passer. It wasn’t a coincidence that Fitzgerald broke out right at the time the Cardinals figured out Pittsburgh’s pass rush. Warner was throwing to the hot receiver the majority of the game, and did a phenominal job. But that’s Warner’s game; he attacks based on what’s given to him.

    As for Arizona’s defense…I’m not sure they played all that well overall. I thought Dockett made himself several million dollars with one of the better individual defensive performances we’ve seen in the big game, but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was thoroughly abused all game long. Dansby’s pick was the result of Ben not keeping the ball above the line. Their goal line D played well, but frankly, Pittsburgh’s goal line offense has been a problem all season long. I’m not sure how great a defense has to be to stop it.

    It’s not really much different than the Ravens defense in the second game. They played well, but didn’t get it done when it counted.

    Overall though, it’s a great question. I have to give it a draw, but I think the Cardinals were in the game due to the ability of his personnel moreso than coaching.

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