Cardinals and Steelers show strength at Safety

You play for the Cardinals long enough and you pay a price. That has been the case for Adrian Wilson, who earned just his second Pro Bowl trip in eight seasons in 2008.

Wilson has been one of the league’s best safeties for years, according to coaches, peers, scouting services, you name it. Yet each year, he mostly watches as players such as the Cowboys’ Roy Williams get trips to Hawaii while Wilson’s season inevitably ends in December.

Not the case any more.

While Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu, with his flowing locks, is more celebrated and one Super Bowl ring ahead, Wilson is one of the bigger reasons why a Cardinals’ win over the 6’frac12;-point favorite Steelers on Sunday night would be little or no surprise.

Wilson, more than most, has paid his dues. Now he’s ready to make Steelers’ receivers pay.

Until 2008, Wilson played on seven Cardinals teams that never finished higher than 8-8 and seldom reached that level.

The postseason was strictly for others.

‘We’ve made a lot of mistakes as an organization,’ Wilson said. ‘We’ve had some draft picks that didn’t pan out. We’ve had some free agents that didn’t pan out. I have been able to see this organization rise from obscurity to where we are now.

‘Finally we have a pretty strong core of players.’

That core includes a defense that was frequently overwhelmed during the regular season, giving up 56 points to the Jets, 37 to the Giants, 48 to the Eagles and 47 to the Patriots.

Things have changed in the postseason. Drastically.

The Cardinals have shut down powerful running attacks led by Atlanta’s Michael Turner (18 carries for 42 yards), Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart (15 for 75) and Philadelphia’s Brian Westbrook (12 for 45).

As a strong safety, Wilson has had a major role in stopping the run. But a Cardinals secondary that has eight interceptions also has established itself as Pittsburgh’s equal.

‘Adrian’s kind of the granddaddy of the group, the guy we all look up to,’ free safety Antrel Rolle said. ‘At the same time, we all kind of feel like we’re on the same page now.’

Wilson’s leadership at safety is matched on the opposite side by Polamalu’s relentless energy and effort.

Now in his sixth season from USC, Polamalu is forever delivering just what the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense needs, at least when he avoids injury.

In the AFC Championship Game against Baltimore, despite the manner in which the Steelers had shut down the Ravens’ offense, they only held a two-point fourth-quarter lead and needed one more big play to wrap up a Super Bowl trip.

Leave it to Polamalu not only to intercept rookie Joe Flacco but to become (hard to believe) the first Steeler ever to return one for a touchdown in a playoff game, sealing Pittsburgh’s seventh Super Bowl visit.

‘You can’t teach people to play the game the way he plays the game,’ Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said. ‘If you have a chance to be around guys like that, you don’t harness it. You embrace it, and you appreciate it for what it is.’

Whether it’s a No. 1 defense like Pittsburgh’s or one that suddenly gains incredible momentum in the playoffs, the leadership that safeties provide tends to be huge.

In the Cowboys’ case, think Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters in the ’70s, Darren Woodson in the ’90s, and even what Roy Williams was doing his first three or four years out of Oklahoma.

And when you think about what Dallas is missing at the position now, it makes it that much easier to understand why units led by Wilson and Polamalu still have some football left to play this season.


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