Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley
When the teams from the NFC East sit down to watch the Super Bowl next Sunday (probably not together), they will see some familiar faces. The NFC East split with the Steelers, with the Eagles and Giants grabbing the wins. And the division went 3-1 against the Cardinals in the regular season before the Eagles lost the one that counted most.
We gave the Eagles some grace since that 32-25 loss in Glendale, Ariz., is still pretty fresh. But I tracked down Redskins secondary coach Jerry Gray, former Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart and Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce to talk about both teams. All of them picked the Steelers to win, but they reserved the right to change their minds at least twice. You'll read and hear a ton of analysis this week, but hopefully these guys can take you inside the game.
Gray, a former All-American safety at the University of Texas, helped design a game plan that led to a 24-17 Redskins win over the Cardinals early in the season. As you might expect, Larry Fitzgerald is the focal point for any defensive game plan.
"We didn't want to get beat by No. 11," said Gray. "And you can't leave a defensive back alone out there with him. [Quarterback] Kurt Warner's so smart that you can't disguise anything. You have to try and make him hold the ball. If you hit him early, you have a chance."
The Redskins put Shawn Springs in one-on-one coverage with Anquan Boldin. They put cornerback Carlos Rogers on Fitzgerald and then shaded a safety to that side. Washington did a nice job against Fitzgerald for much of the game, but he turned what the Redskins thought was a corner route into a post for a 62-yard touchdown.
Pierce is still shocked that the Eagles gave Fitzgerald a free release at the line of scrimmage last week. The Giants had Aaron Ross jam Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage and a safety play right behind Ross. Fitzgerald can beat a jam, but that split-second he's forced to dance around a defender gives the defensive line more time to get to the quarterback.
Gray said it's difficult to defend the Steelers, in part, because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger doesn't appear to have a favorite wide receiver right now. His ability to slide out of the pocket and extend plays makes him dangerous. And Pierce said the Giants missed at least three or four sacks in their win over the Steelers because of Roethlisberger's strength.
"Some quarterbacks will go down if you blown on them," said Pierce. "You actually have to wrap up Big Ben or he'll get away and make a play."
Pierce has a lot of respect for Donovan McNabb, but he said that Roethlisberger is tougher to defend. Interestingly, Pierce was the guy who said after the Giants' 37-29 win over the Cardinals that the two teams would meet again in the NFC Championship Game. Of course, the Giants came up a week short on that bid, but it's pretty impressive if Pierce really saw this coming. The Cardinals fell to 7-5 after that loss, which set up the cross-country trip to Philly, where things didn't go well -- to the tune of a 28-point deficit.
Our panelists couldn't stop talking about Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. They think the continuity he's brought to the defense and the confusing coverages he employs makes him one of the most innovative assistants in the league.
The Steelers might show a look where 10 defenders are standing near the line of scrimmage (nose tackle Casey Hampton prefers to stay in at least a three-point stance). The Steelers do a variety of things with All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu. But when he lines up in the box, it almost always means he's coming on the blitz. Gray also has a great deal of respect for Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson, one of the most underappreciated players in the league.
Stewart, who was fired by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones two weeks after the season, is very familiar with the Steelers because of his friendship with head coach Mike Tomlin. The Cowboys opened the game up against Arizona with Adam "Pacman" Jones "covering" Fitzgerald. Some of the coaches thought Pacman's competitiveness would allow him to counter Fitzgerald's superior size and athleticism. But the Cowboys were forced to make a change when Fitzgerald easily scored from inside the 10-yard line.
When Dallas played the Steelers, cornerback Anthony Henry covered Hines Ward and Newman started out on Santonio Holmes. It was one of the Cowboys' best performances of the season on defense, but the Steelers came alive late in the game to snatch a win. Stewart said the Cowboys had a lot of success with Ken Hamlin on the safety blitz in that game. The blitz forced Roethlisberger to work the middle of the field, where he wasn't successful
Pierce says that Warner's less likely to make a game-changing mistake. He said the Cardinals' quarterback will take sack when he has to, but that Roethlisberger will occasionally throw it up for grabs when he's being chased. Pierce picked the Steelers, but his gut's trying to tell him to select the Cards. Pierce will serve as a guest analyst on Fox's "Best Damn Sports Show" all week.
"I'm going to wear my Super Bowl ring to Media Day," he said of the annual carnival, which is normally held the Tuesday of Super Bowl week. "Every time I get upset about not playing the Cardinals, I'll just look at that big ring."