- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. | It would have been no surprise if Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton reeled off names like Cris Carter, Randy Moss and Jerry Rice to compare to Larry Fitzgerald. In the last 20 years, that distinguished trio represents the gold standard among NFL receivers.

Instead, Horton went old school - Hall of Fame old school.

“Paul Warfield, Otis Taylor, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth - can I keep going on with these legendary receivers?” he said during Tuesday’s Super Bowl media day at Raymond James Stadium.

Fitzgerald, just 25 years old, in his fifth year and preparing for his fourth postseason game, already belongs in that company?

“No question, he does,” Horton said.

That kind of praise has been heaped upon Fitzgerald since he started his three-game romp through the NFC playoffs, posting 100-yard performances in each game to help the Arizona Cardinals reach their first Super Bowl.

Before the playoffs, only Cardinals fans and fantasy players knew of Fitzgerald’s production - three years of at least 96 catches, 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns.

After his postseason tour de force (23 catches, 419 yards, five touchdowns), everybody knows No. 11 in red is the Steelers’ biggest problem Sunday night.

“What he’s doing in the postseason is breaking records and not just records - Jerry Rice’s record [for playoff yardage],” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “That speaks volumes.”

It will be up to Taylor and Bryant McFadden to limit Fitzgerald downfield, and inside linebackers Larry Foote and James Farrior will be partly responsible for the shallow crossing routes.

Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia had no answer for Fitzgerald, who despite the great numbers always talks about wanting to improve, constantly points out his mistakes and frequently says he has a long way to go in his development.

“I watch myself on tape at times and kind of cringe,” he said. “I’m never going to be satisfied with what I did the last week. I don’t know where [that desire] came from, I just want to improve, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes - legally - to make it happen.”

That desire developed as Fitzgerald, a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings, watched Carter and Moss ply their trade.

“I was watching them every step of the way - just their work ethic and how motivated they were,” Fitzgerald said. “Everybody gets to see the players on Sundays, but I was able to see their work ethic in terms of practice, film study, how they took care of their bodies and how they ate.”

Fitzgerald followed the players’ football lead, but academics were an issue. Always a star as a player in Minneapolis, he took a detour to the University of Pittsburgh.

Fitzgerald had more than 30 Division I-A offers but a D average. On the recommendation of former Vikings defensive end Chris Doleman, Fitzgerald’s parents sent him to Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pa., after his high school graduation. He spent 18 months there, improving his grades enough that he received interest from major colleges.

Fitzgerald was driving to a visit at Penn State when weather conditions forced him to stay in Pittsburgh.

“The coaches didn’t know we were coming,” Fitzgerald said. “We met them, gave them my tape and the relationship was started.”

In only two years with the Panthers, he caught 161 passes for 2,677 yards and 34 touchdowns in 26 games. He was the third overall pick by the Cardinals in 2004.

Fitzgerald put up good numbers in his first few seasons, but the Cardinals weren’t winning. Dennis Green was fired in 2006 and replaced by Ken Whisenhunt.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald continued to broaden his game. Last offseason, he dropped from 228 to 213 pounds to improve his end-of-play speed and to produce more yards after the catch.

In the regular season, according to STATS, Fitzgerald’s 461 yards after the catch ranked fifth among receivers and ninth overall, and he caught 13 passes of at least 25 yards.

“Before he was always great with the ball,” Horton said. “Now he catches the ball and runs with it. That’s his biggest improvement. He’s taken his game to another level by making plays after he has the ball in his hands.”

To take advantage of the improved postcatch production, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and wide receivers coach Mike Miller have made an effort to move Fitzgerald around the formation to get a read on what the defense is doing with its coverage and to explore mismatches.

Against Philadelphia, Fitzgerald lined up wide left (28 snaps), wide right (14), slot right (seven) and slot left (seven).

“We did it some last year but more this year,” Miller said. “We’ve had to adjust to what the defenses are doing against him, and we have to do something each week to keep them on their heels.”

For years, the Cardinals produced losing season after losing season. They played big games but never filled up Sun Devil Stadium. Now the team and Fitzgerald have advanced to the world sports stage.

“We’ve been through some really tough years here, and for us to finally get it turned around in the right direction feels so good,” he said. “But we aren’t satisfied with just making it to this point. Obviously this is uncharted territory for us, but if we don’t win, it means nothing.”

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