Personnel report: Cardinals in the Super Bowl

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The offensive approach Arizona took to Super Bowl XLIII differed significantly from how the team used its players during playoff victories over the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles.

Game situations dictated some of the changes. The Steelers' strong run defense also convinced Arizona to alter its thinking.

The Cardinals never used two running backs with two tight ends against the Steelers. They used that combination 35 times over their previous two games, including on the 62-yard flea-flicker touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald against the Eagles.

Arizona's other preferred double-tight end personnel group -- the one with one running back, usually Edgerrin James, and two receivers -- had become a staple in the playoffs. Arizona used it 29 times, often with great effect, during its three previous playoff games. But the Cardinals used that group only three times against the Steelers. Those three plays, all runs, produced gains of 1, 7 and 3 yards. The Cardinals did not stick with it.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley: "In the first half, we were doing it [one time, plus nine snaps with two running backs on the field]. We got into a 2-minute situation at the end after the defense turned over the ball for us. That was one whole possession where we had to throw the ball. And then after we didn't do much on the first possession or two of the second half, then all of a sudden it's 20-7 and you know the game is getting short, fast."

Another reason for getting away from more conventional personnel groupings: The team faced 11 plays in which it needed more than 10 yards for a first down. Three of those were first-down plays. As noted before the game:

"By my count, the Cardinals have faced 27 first-down plays, including playoffs, where they needed more than 10 yards for a first down. This includes four plays in the postseason. Arizona completed passes for 6, 12, and 25 yards on three of them, but I'm not sure they want to take their chances against the Steelers' top-ranked defense."

Kurt Warner threw incomplete 11 times in the Super Bowl (not counting the interception). Ten of those came when Arizona needed between 10 and 22 yards for a first down. Five came when Arizona needed 17 or more yards. Four came when the Cardinals needed at least 20 yards. Those situations are brutal to manage against a top defense. They also made it harder for Arizona to use trick plays. We did see Arizona put safety Antrel Rolle on the field as a wide receiver, but a holding penalty against Mike Gandy wiped out the play.

When Arizona did try to run the ball in running situations, particularly early in the game, the Steelers shut it down. Arizona had averaged at least 4.8 yards per carry against each previous playoff opponent when running the ball on first-down plays in the first halves of games. The Steelers held the Cardinals to a 1.4-yard average in those critical establish-the-run situations.

Arizona did run the ball effectively in the third quarter. This was about when a shoulder injury forced receiver Anquan Boldin from the game. The Cardinals had passed five consecutive plays and 19 times in 22 plays when Boldin went to the sideline. Arizona then ran three times for 19 yards without Boldin, including twice for a total of 10 yards from that one-back, two-tight end group. Boldin then returned and we never saw that personnel group again. Arizona passed on its next four plays, three on first or second down.

The offense really got going when Arizona went to its four-receiver group, which it used 16 times, all in the fourth quarter. Nine of the Cardinals' 11 longest gains came with four receivers on the field. These nine plays gained 206 yards, 22.9 yards per play.

Arizona had been most successful late in the season when getting away from that group. For that reason, I would not fault the Cardinals for failing to use it earlier in the game. It's remarkable that Arizona was able to take the lead in the final minutes without ever establishing a running game or even the threat of one.