Matchups for the Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium:
When the Steelers have the ball
Just as the Steelers of the 1970s evolved from a run-it-down-your-throat offense to a more versatile mode, this group has balanced its attack. Indeed, when RB Willie Parker (39) couldn’t find much room against Baltimore in the AFC championship game, QB Ben Roethlisberger (7) took control. And the Cardinals’ defense, while quite stout for most of three postseason victories, hardly is on the level of the Ravens.
Pittsburgh will turn to Parker early, particularly seeking to draw Arizona’s standout safety, Adrian Wilson (24) closer to the line. If successful, the Steelers will keep pounding Parker, Mewelde Moore (21) and Gary Russell (33), but also will mix in some medium-range and deep throws to playmaker Santonio Holmes (10). Holmes’ 65-yard catch and run TD was the major offensive play in the AFC title game, and his contributions would be even more vital should fellow wideout Hines Ward (86) be limited or out with a knee injury.
More likely, the warrior Ward will play – and play well. He was the MVP of Pittsburgh 2006 Super Bowl win.
Arizona’s secondary has performed inconsistently in the playoffs, but has made seven interceptions, led by two each from Rod Hood (26) and rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (29). ARC could wind up with lots of solo coverage on Holmes, particularly if Ward is hobbled.
Steelers TE Heath Miller (83) has been a clutch performer and favorite target for Roethlisberger. His matchups with Wilson, Antrel Rolle (21) and Aaron Francisco (41), plus the linebackers, might be telling.
Arizona’s LBs have been very active in the playoffs, notably Karlos Dansby (58) and Gerald Hayes (54). Again, though, they aren’t in Baltimore’s class.
Roethlisberger often holds the ball too long, and he was sacked four times by the Ravens. Arizona has seven sacks in its three playoff games, with DEs Bertrand Berry (92) and Antonio Smith (94) providing the best pass rush and DT Darnell Dockett (90) being disruptive in all phases. They should find ways of pressuring Big Ben against an inconsistent offensive line that includes tackles Willie Colon (74) and Max Starks (78), guards Darnell Stapleton (72) and Chris Kemoeatu (68).
When the Cardinals have the ball
First priority: Keep Kurt Warner (13) upright.
While their running game has been revived behind veteran Edgerrin James (32) and rookie Tim Hightower (34) – both key contributors to the win over Philadelphia for the NFC crown – the Cardinals won’t survive if Warner doesn’t get time to pass.
Warner heads to his third Super Bowl owning the two most prolific passing days in the game’s history. He had 414 yards in the 2000 win over Tennessee when he was with the Rams, and 365 when St. Louis lost to New England two years later.
Expecting that many yards against the best, most intimidating defense in the league since the Ravens of eight years ago is dreaming. That doesn’t mean Arizona has no chance, because Warner remains a superb, clutch player with excellent touch. If tackles Mike Gandy (69) and Levi Brown (75) and guard Reggie Wells (74) give him time, he will produce.
Arizona certainly has the edge in receivers with the uncoverable Larry Fitzgerald (11), who already has set a record for postseason yards receiving (419) and has five playoff touchdowns, three against Philly. Even if Fitzgerald is double-teamed, he will find ways to be productive, so cornerbacks Ike Taylor (24), Deshea Townsend (26) and Bryant McFadden (20) will need plenty of support from hard-hitting Ryan Clark (25) and All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu (43), who has been sensational in the playoffs.
Limiting Fitzgerald somewhat is critical, and even then Anquan Boldin (81) and Steve Breaston (15) are dangerous. Both joined Fitz as 1,000-yard receivers this season.
The best way for “Blitzburgh” to keep the Cardinals from soaring is with a strong pass rush. Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (92) is complemented in the linebacking corps by James Farrior (51), LaMarr Woodley (56) and Larry Foote (50). Up front, Aaron Smith (91) and Casey Hampton (98) are formidable against the pass and the run.
Arizona’s kicking game is solid. Neil Rackers (1) made 25 of 28 field goals, which is excellent, but Pittsburgh’s Jeff Reed (3) is the superior placekicker and one of the best clutch kickers around.
Ben Graham (5) fared well since he took over the punting duties late in the season for Arizona, while J.J. Arrington (28) and Breaston are dangerous on kick runbacks.
But the Cardinals weren’t exactly brilliant in this area last weekend.
Pittsburgh always seems to get a huge play from Holmes, whose punt return for a score got the Steelers back into their divisional round win over San Diego. He can be hit or miss, though, and prone to bad decisions.
The Steelers are OK on kickoff returns, but their special teams strength is in coverage.
A pair of second-year coaches who competed for the Steelers job after Bill Cowher retired in early 2007.
Mike Tomlin got the Pittsburgh gig, has led the Steelers to two AFC North titles and now to their second Super Bowl in four years. A disciple of the 4-3 defense, he stood behind coordinator Dick LeBeau and the 3-4 because that’s the best scheme for the talent on hand, and it’s paid off.
Tomlin wants to be physical in all aspects and has the right roster for it. He gives Roethlisberger just enough freedom for Big Ben to display why he’s a big winner.
Ken Whisenhunt was Cowher’s offensive coordinator when Pittsburgh won the 2006 Super Bowl. He was bypassed by Steelers management and took the job in Arizona, bringing another ’06 candidate, Russ Grimm, with him.
Whisenhunt’s best work has been erasing a losing culture in the Valley of the Sun _ helped, of course, by veteran leaders such as Warner, Wilson and James. His game-planning, particularly on offense, is strong. And, like Tomlin, he delegates well. Intangibles
The Cardinals are in their first Super Bowl _ they’ve never even come close before and already have surpassed their all-time victory total in the postseason (2) with their three wins this year. They have not gotten tight because they have been underdogs throughout, as they are for this game.
Their strong leadership and experience in key positions has served them well in the playoffs, never more so than in the 72-yard drive to winning TD against Philadelphia.
Pittsburgh’s latest Steel Curtain is among its most impressive, and this team won’t ever back down. It wants a rugged, field-position type of game featuring tough play on every down. Rarely does it get away from the style that been so defining in Steel City since the invention of football.
The Steelers could become the first franchise with six Super Bowl titles, a strong motivator. Then again, winning it for a first time is just as energizing for Arizona.