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Tampa 2?

TAMPA, FLA. — TAMPA, FLA. - Eight years ago, the last time the Super Bowl graced Raymond James Stadium, the Ravens stamped theirs as one of the best defenses in NFL history by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Tonight, when the Pittsburgh Steelers (14-4) clash with the high-scoring Arizona Cardinals (12-7) in the 43rd Super Bowl, could their defense garner the same validation?

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"To have a great defense, that's one thing," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "To have a championship defense, that's the main thing."

The Steelers' defense doesn't have the same aura as the 1985 Chicago Bears'. It doesn't have the shutouts or an NFL record like the 2000 Ravens'.

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Yet few defenses can match Pittsburgh as far as overall dominance.

The Steelers ranked first in total defense and scoring defense in the regular season. They led the NFL in pass defense. And they were 54 yards short of being the top-ranked run defense. Since the 1970 merger, no team has finished No. 1 in all four defensive categories.

But the Steelers believe these numbers would be meaningless if they aren't No. 1 at the end of tonight's game.

"When we started being compared to the great defenses, they brought up the 1978 Rams, and I never heard of that defense because they didn't win the Super Bowl," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. "Teams like the '85 Bears and 2000 Ravens, they won. You've got to win this game if you want to be remembered forever. That's the pressure on us."

There are few weaknesses in Pittsburgh's defense.

There is the space-eater in the middle (nose tackle Casey Hampton). There are the relentless pass rushers off the edge (NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley). There is the smart and experienced team leader in the middle (linebacker James Farrior). There is a playmaker at one safety spot (Polamalu) and a hard hitter at the other (Ryan Clark).

And the mastermind behind it all is the innovator of the zone blitz - defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The NFL's oldest assistant coach (he's 71) remains on the cutting edge of stopping offenses with innovative schemes.

No running back gained more than 100 yards against Pittsburgh this season. No quarterback threw for more than 300 yards. And only half of its regular-season opponents scored more than 10 points.

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"The numbers this defense has put up," LeBeau said. "I honestly didn't believe I would see that."

The Steelers' basic strategy is to shut down the running game early and force obvious passing situations. That allows Harrison and Woodley to attack the quarterback.

But the Cardinals might welcome the pressure.

Arizona's Kurt Warner had the NFL's best passer rating (103.8) against the blitz. He completed 64.5 percent of his attempts in those situations, throwing 14 touchdown passes and four interceptions.

"I think the most important element against this team is recognition," Warner said. "They do a lot of different things; they've got a lot of different guys that they can use in different spots. If we can recognize what they're doing and are able to handle it or attack it, we have a chance to have some success. If we don't and they win that battle, then it could be a long day."

While the Cardinals are 6 1/2 -point underdogs, some NFL observers like their chances against the Steelers. The vote of confidence has come from some unlikely places.

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"This was the worst draw out of the NFC for the Steelers," said Rod Woodson, an NFL Network analyst who played 10 seasons in Pittsburgh. "The best way to attack a 3-4 defense is spread them out and hit passes in the openings down the seams. And what do the Cardinals do best?"

Warner recaptured the magic from his days of being the two-time NFL Most Valuable Player, throwing for 4,583 yards in the regular season. He has played even better in the postseason, becoming the second-highest-rated quarterback in playoff history behind Bart Starr.

Much of his success has been built on the weapons around him. The Cardinals had three 1,000-yard receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston.

As a result, Arizona has scored at least 30 points in its past four games.

"It will definitely be a challenge for our defense," Farrior said. "I don't think the guys on our side of the ball would have it any other way. We want to be considered as one of the best groups that ever played the game. So why not go up against the best?"

Like many great defenses, the one in Pittsburgh is putting the pressure on itself to win the Super Bowl.

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"I think it's true in any sport: Defense wins championships," Foote said. "We know what they're capable of doing. If we can slow those guys down, our chances of winning are going to increase. I like our chances."

an 'a' for the 'd'

A look at where the Steelers' defense ranked in the regular season:

Category ......Avg. allowed ........NFL rank

Total yards 237.2 ............. 1st

Rushing yards 80.3 ............. 2nd

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Passing yards 156.9 .......... 1st

Points .........13.9 ............. 1st



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