Super Bowl XLIII Preview: Steelers vs. Cardinals

I know you’re thinking, “Oh great, more analysis!” One of the drawbacks to reaching the Super Bowl is every blogger with an internet connection, every talking head on ESPN, every newspaper columnist still toiling in a dying medium, pretty much anybody vaguely aware of a game called football decides to provide their insights on the outcome. Unfortunately, most of those people have seen the Pittsburgh Steelers play maybe a handful of times which means their opinions are about as educated as the elephant who picked the Steelers to win on Sunday. Maybe Detroit should hire him as their G.M. He’s already proven to be a lot smarter than Matt Millen.

Anyway, with all that in mind, please allow me to present a breakdown of the game by somebody eats, sleeps, breathes, and bleeds Black and Gold.

Despite being known as perhaps the worst franchise in the NFL, Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwell managed to bully the state into building the team a new domed stadium. Despite being one of the ugliest in the league, it was still a vast improvement over the old facility where fans would fry in the desert sun while watching horrendous football being played. After getting the new digs, the Cardinals became an active player in free agency.

They hired Denny Green to complete the transition from NFL joke to NFL contender. Unfortunately, he was who we thought he was and failed partially due to the pitiful state of the team he inherited and partially because he’s a lousy coach. After canning Green, they sought a coach who could remove the culture of losing which had permeated the franchise since 1947. Naturally they looked to Pittsburgh, one of the most successful franchises in all of sports, hiring Bill Cowher‘s offensive coordinator, Ken Whisenhunt.

Whisenhunt’s personality and football ideology is similar to his former boss. Like Cowher, he’s an intense coach who wants to play a tough, smash mouth, blitzing style of football. He also has little patience for players who don’t follow his mandates or commit too many mistakes which is why he ended up yanking top draft pick QB Matt Leinart in favor of veteran Kurt Warner. Steady leadership at the QB position combined with finally having somebody behind center with the arm to take advantage of their talented wide receivers and also aided by playing in the worst division in the NFL propelled the Cardinals to their first division title since 1975. Subsequently, three straight upset wins over heavily favored opponents have the team believing they are a team of destiny.

STEELER DEFENSE vs. CARDINALS OFFENSE

The Cardinals offense is almost a carbon copy of the system Whisenhunt ran here in Pittsburgh. People like to think we lined up and ran the ball down people’s throats but in reality the Steelers often passed to set up the run. Remember, for example, the big win at Indianapolis during the Super Bowl run where we came out throwing on the opening TD drive. Arizona follows a similar approach, although during the season they tended to pass the ball a lot more than run since rushing appeared to be a weakness and passing seemed to be their strength. The other reason was big ticket free agent RB Edgerrin James fell out of favor with the coaches to the point he was replaced as starter by rookie Tim Hightower.

Realizing a change had to take place for them to be successful in the playoffs, Whisenhunt wisely began to dial the offense back to a more reasonable run-pass ratio. With that in mind, they quickly decided James was the best choice to carry the load as the primary back. James gets a lot of love because he’s a smart, tough, savvy football player who is also valuable on passing downs in blitz pick up. There is some question of whether his heavy workload over a long career has taken its toll on his body as sometimes he looks like the Edge of old and other times seems to be a step behind.

The Steelers narrowly missed a #1 ranking against the rush which would’ve made the team first in every major defensive category. They’re still almost impossible to run against as both Willis McGahee and Darren Sproles have discovered. With “Big Snack” Casey Hampton, the ever-improving Brett Keisel, and the criminally underrated Aaron Smith holding the line, I wouldn’t expect James to break this trend.

The onus is going to be on QB Kurt Warner to make plays in the passing game. Of course, he can’t complete passes if he’s lying flat on his back. The story of this game will be written by the Cardinal’s offensive line. If they can stem the tide of the most fearsome pass rush in the NFL, they might have a chance to shock the world.

The line was the unit that needed to make the biggest improvements this year and they did by signing left tackle Mike Gandy and center Al Johnson. Johnson’s lack of strength was an issue in Dallas, but he seemingly didn’t have that problem in Arizona this season. LG Reggie Wells tries hard and at times looks very good but other times looks lost. RG Deuce Lutui has talent but is still pretty raw and struggles with technique. RT Levi Brown is a rookie who has played capably this year but is still going to struggle like any other first year player would.

Looking at the match-ups, I’d have to thing defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau will have some favorable situations to exploit with his infamous Zone Blitz scheme. As it is now, The raw Lutui and rookie Brown will be lining up across from LaMarr Woodley. That’s gotta be something Mister Woodley looks forward to. Wells and Gandy will have problems of their own with James Harrison. This doesn’t even factor in safety blitzes or shifting the linebackers around to confuse the offense.

Their line was helped a lot by having Warner taking the snaps. The problems with Leinart (bad decision making, weak arm, slow release) aren’t there with Warner. He’s able to read the field and get rid of the ball in a hurry which saves the line a lot of sacks because the ball is gone before they get beat. Warner’s a classic pocket passer with very limited mobility. Like any classic pocket QB, his big weakness is when he gets ran around and/or hit, he tends to get frazzled and erratic. Luckily for him, he has arguably the best collection of wide outs in the league to throw at.

The Cardinals will continue to revolve their offense around the passing game as long as Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald are on the team. Both are quality all around receivers in the sense they can perform on short, intermediate, and deep pass patterns. Fitzgerald has been Superman in the playoffs, beating people with speed downfield and outleaping defenders to aggressively snag balls out of the air on plays where he’s covered. You can’t stop him, only hope to contain him.

Boldin has battled injuries this season continuing into the playoffs. He’s had two weeks to recover and should be near 100% this Sunday which is bad because when he is on, he’s a dynamic receiver. Steve Breaston played in Boldin’s absence and put up a 1,000 yard season himself. Much of that is owed to teams rolling coverage over to Fitz but make no mistake he’s a very good receiver. They also have rookie Early Doucet who they like bring in on four WR packages so there are no easy covers on this roster.

Fortunately, the Steelers have possibly the best trio of cover corners in the league in Deshea Townshend, Bryant McFadden, and Face Me Ike Taylor. Taylor has had a breakthrough season as he’s been matched against every top receiver (T.O., Randy Moss, T.J. Houshalottaletters) and done well against all of them. He’s got the size and speed to play with anybody. It’ll be imperative he has one of the best games of his life when he’s matched up on Fitzgerald. While he’ll get help, most notably from Mean Troy Polamalu and the Hitman Ryan Clark, nobody expects him to completely smother L.F., the Steelers cannot allow one player to beat them.  Likewise, they cannot allow the ever tricky Whisenhunt to buy a cheap TD through some sort of gadget play.  Let’s see if the secondary, especially the Three Amigos, are up to the task.

STEELER OFFENSE vs. CARDINALS DEFENSE

The Cardinals started the season running the 3-4 but it didn’t work out for them. Defensive coordinator Clancy Penderghast switched them back to a 4-3 which he’s more comfortable with despite Whisenhunt preferring to copy the Steelers in every way. The team’s personnel is more suited to the 3-4 as Darnell Dockett has the size and athletic ability to play DT while rookie Calais Campbell is better off playing on the line. Despite being ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense, Penderghast has game planned brilliantly in the postseason, dialing up all sorts of stunts and blitzes from the formation.

Still, Campbell is undersized for his position and Dockett isn’t stout at the point of attack. The Cardinals allowed 110 yards rushing per game during the regular season so they can be run on. If the Steelers are to win, Fast Willie Parker will have to have a game along the lines of his season best performance against San Diego. Running the ball effectively not only puts the breaks on their ability to blitz every play but it also serves the very crucial purpose of keeping the high powered Arizona offense off the field. If FWP doesn’t 15 or so carries by the start of the fourth quarter, that will be a big red flashing warning sign no matter what the score.

The good news for the passing game is perhaps the biggest question mark for the defense belongs at linebacker. Bertrand Berry was at one point an elite pass rusher but age and injuries took him down a notch. Gerald Hayes and Karlos Dansby can take on blockers, cover a little and defend against the run. Dansby has talent although Hayes is a little more refined. Still, this is by no means a sack-making high pressure unit. If our offensive line can play at the same level they’ve shown thus far in the playoffs, QB Ben Roethlisberger should find his achy ribs well protected.

Like the secondary for the Steelers dealing with the Cardinals wide outs, one of the crucial aspects of the game will be how the Arizona secondary does against the Steeler passing game. They didn’t play well during the season, registering only 13 picks and allowing 233 yards per game but made up with that with 8 INTs already this postseason. They smartly drafted dynamic corner Dominique Rogers-Cromartie who is having an excellent playoffs and is the CB to be wary of. Antrel Rolle was an inconsistent corner so they moved him to free safety where he’s done much better playing with Adrian Wilson, who is a good safety but wildly overrated by many as he struggles in coverage more than given credit for. Just like running the ball is crucial to keep time of possession in the Steelers’ favor, not turning the ball over is absolutely crucial. You cannot give Warner and Co any extra chances so it’s imperative Big Ben not pull a Neil O’Donnell in this game.

He should be working with his full compliment of wide receivers. Hines Ward practiced yesterday and supposedly had no issues with the knee he injured in the AFC Championship game. His presence is so vital because he’s the best 3rd down receiver in the league and one of the most clutch Big Game Players of this generation. Santonio Holmes has shown game breaking ability in both playoff victories so another huge play from him would go a long way to helping the Black and Gold’s cause. Watch for Nate Washington to possibly get loose for one of his patented long bombers. Let’s just hope he catches it. And of course TE Heath Miller will be a huge factor as Big Ben’s safety valve if Hines proves more injured/ineffective than the team is letting on.

What more can I say? The Pittsburgh Steelers face off against the Arizona Cardinals for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. One team is looking to build upon a legacy of success while the other is trying to emerge from the darkness to the bright shining light of victory for the first time. In a season where the Steelers faced seemingly insurmountable challenges every week, one might say it’s a great accomplishment to make it this far. But this is Pittsburgh and we are Steeler Nation so anything less than a Steel City Six Pack will not do. Given the character and resolve of Mike Tomlin and his team, I’m prepared for a happy ending to be written to this epic season.

Tags: 2008 Nfl Playoffs 2009 Nfl Playoffs Antrel Rolle Arizona Cardinals Ben Roethlisberger Bill Cowher Cowher Edgerrin James Face Me Ike Fast Willie Parker Fwp Hines Ward Ike Taylor James Harrison Ken Whisenhunt Kurt Warner Lamarr Woodley Larry Fitzgerald Matt Leinart Mike Tomlin Nfl Championship Nfl Playoffs Pittsburgh Steelers Roger-cromartie Ryan Clark Steeler Nation Super Bowl Breakdown Super Bowl Preview Super Bowl XLIII Tim Hightower Troy Polamalu Willie Parker

  • http://petegrubbs.tripod.com Pete

    Overall, I have to agree with your analysis, but there’s something that I’ve been thinking about that I haven’t heard anyone else pick up on.  Maybe I’m just mental, but here it is:

    As you, very accurately, noted, AZ’s passing attack doesn’t mean much if Warner is eating turf.  We know this; they know this, too.  In fact, Warner has recently stated that he welcomes the blitz b/c he knows he’ll have an open receiver down field.  That assumes, of course, that one of our DBs is coming up through the middle or off the edge.  However, Warner has had a number of missteps in recent weeks, nearly falling to the turf of his own accord.

    And we have a very good Nose Tackle.

    It’s my opinion that, defensively, this game may very well hinge on the kind of pressure we can get up the middle, regardless of our blitz packages.  Now I’m very aware that AZ has, no doubt, dedicated some practice time to sorting out the difficulties between their line and their QB and they may have things fixed.  I’m also aware that we’ve seen Casey Hampton create some chaos w/O-lines that haven’t had this issue to worry about.  Couple that w/our Ds overall speed, and I think that we might have a defensive opportunity.

    So, I expect to see a lot of emphasis on collapsing the center of AZ’s line and shoving it back into Warner’s lap.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fairly high percentage of blitzes coming right up the middle as well.  As far as I can see, that’s pretty much the way to stop Warner.

    On a somewhat different note, let us all pray that none of the players taking the field is seriously injured today, regardless of the colors he wears.  I may not have a lot of time for a certain mayor and team mascot, but I bear no ill will to any of the Cardinals’ players and certainly don’t want to see any of them carted off.  I have always believed that one of the hallmarks of greatness is to be gracious in victory, defeat or in the heat of battle.  If Steeler Nation expects to have greatness in our team, we’d damn well better have some in ourselves.

    Here we go, Steelers, HERE WE GO!!

  • Pingback: Super Bowl XLIII: The Winner? | The Landry Hat | A Blog For Dallas Cowboys Fans

  • Pingback: Breaking It Down On Super Bowl Sunday | Predominantly Orange | A Blog For Denver Broncos Fans