Underdogs, Chemistry and Momentum
Arizona Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Weather: Cloudy – low 60’s or high 50’s. The fact that the game is outside on real grass favors the Steelers but the weather will be a nonfactor unless clouds turn to rain.
Injuries: Steelers – Of course the marquee injury (what a horrible way to put it) is Hines Ward’s sprained knee. The all-Pro and former Super Bowl MVP wide receiver returned to practice Friday and all signals indicate that he will play. Adrenaline (and pharmaceuticals) should overcome any pain problems; the question will be strength. Will he be able to cut and plant as usual? I doubt it. Will it matter? Probably. However, I think a more significant injury is Center Hartwig’s knee: he did not practice Thursday and his absence would be devastating on an Oline that has struggled in pass protection right up until a couple of weeks ago. Tackle Max Starks has a knee issue also, but at least he practiced. Those Oline issues are not something that Ben Roethlisberger, fighting a sore back, wants to think about.
Cardinals – J.J. Arrington’s knee held him out of practice on Thursday. So what, you might be tempted to say – the guy’s the third string running back. Ah, but he’s been stellar in the return game this post season and without him, they could lose very very important field position. Of major concern is punter Ben Graham’s groin – ugh, I can’t believe how much time I’m forced to discuss this anatomical area. But groin pulls are serious business for punters and that field position battle could be lost irretrievably if Graham isn’t full speed – or full kick as the case may be. Better news is that WR Boldin’s hamstring has allowed him to return to practice duties. That should solve the problem of him being on the sidelines during key drives: since he’ll have practiced with the team, he might actually see the field. Defensive ends LaBoy and Smith have been limited in practice. I hope their biceps and knee respectively are healing quickly since the Arizona D will need all hands not only on deck but battle-ready on Sunday.
Arizona Offense versus Pittsburgh Defense: Finesse versus power. Joe Montana and Jerry Rice against Lawrence Taylor and Mean Joe Green.
I hate to break it to Cards’ fans, but power usually wins. Unless it’s matched by power of the same level on the opposing Oline. No matter how accurate Warner can be and no matter how many circus catches Fitzgerald and Boldin can make, NONE of it will matter unless the guys up front can keep Pittsburgh’s Dline and Linebackers away from their quarterback. The re-emergence of a running game in the desert will help. Edgerrin James’ fresh legs and Hightower’s bursts might keep the Steelers from keying totally on Warner, but I bet that Pittsburgh will try to sack/pressure Warner using only the 3-man Dline and leave their four spectacular linebackers free to eat up the running backs. If they succeed, Arizona will fold like a house of – you know. The only thing that makes me think the Cardinals have a chance here is that the Eagles’ defense tried to do just that and the Arizona Oline proved quite equal to the task of protecting their mature signal caller. Expect Pittsburgh to be judicious with the blitz. Dick LeBeau is one of the best in the business at running a defense and I’m pretty sure he knows that there aren’t too many blitzing schemes that Kurt Warner hasn’t seen in his career. It’s not the same as playing rookie Joe Flacco two weeks ago. So, if they blitz it will be out of disguised packages and formations. IF #13 stays upright prepare for an aerial display of receiving fireworks as Warner tosses it up to four of the best WR’s in the game.
That’s right – there are FOUR of them: the first two are world class and the next two are very good and I would expect to see some four wideout sets early in the game. The Steelers’ cornerbacks are often overlooked – and they shouldn’t be. But by far the most dangerous man on the football field in this matchup will be Troy Polamalu. Fortunately, you can’t miss his Medusa-like hair; so keep your eyes peeled. He’ll make no less than three key plays in this game. The defensive scheme relies on discipline from everyone except #43, who is allowed to freelance and generally wreak havoc on opposing offenses. All DB’s will hit as hard as they can, trying to intimidate Arizona’s WR’s. We’ll get to see how tough these big guys with great hands really are. The linebackers may not be as ferocious as the Ravens’, but they are tackling and sacking demons and I wouldn’t want to face any of them across the scrimmage line. If Warner doesn’t get hit (he fumbles a lot when hit, too) and if James, Hightower and Arrington can generate a mildly respectable ground attack, Arizona could be successful. They did it against the very strong Philly D. But I think rushing yards will be very hard to come by. Pittsburgh is the number one NFL defense for a reason.
Steelers Offense versus Cardinals Defense: Roethlisberger isn’t called Big Ben for nothing – he’s probably the strongest QB in the league.
He tends to hang onto the ball a long time because it generally takes more than one pass rusher to bring him down. His mobility is best compared to that of a bear – it’s ugly and lumbering, but he can move if he has to. If he gets pushed out of the pocket he’ll keep a play alive a long time, often with a defender hanging off of his jersey. Arizona’s pass rushers must put him on the ground. And that’s going to be a bit harder than usual because the Cardinals’ group relies on speed and this game will be played on grass and not turf. Hines Ward can’t possibly be at full speed as a target for Ben, but Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington have come on very strong in the last two months as WR’s. They both have HUGE play potential and rookie Limas Sweed is dying to prove that big drop against Baltimore was just a fluke. TE Heath Miller is one of the very best as both a blocker and receiver. But the Cards should be most afraid of renewed running back Willie Parker. “Fast” Willie had been MIA for most of the year with injuries but came storming back with a vengeance against Baltimore in the AFC Championship. Like Edge, he’s rested and ready to rock. Look out, Arizona linebackers. Dansby and company did an almost unbelievably good job of containing Brian Westbrook two weeks ago, but can they shut down a healthy Parker? They’d better hope so; if not, this game is over. Arizona’s defensive line has played like young demons this past month, but again, they are built for speed. The DB’s should be household names and in fact rookie Rogers-Cromartie is getting there. In order to win, the cornerbacks must succeed one on one, allowing the safeties to roam. Safety Adrian Wilson may not quite be the athlete that Polamalu is, but he’s no slouch either and will want to have a big day to prove he belongs in the same conversation as Troy of the flowing locks. The Steelers Offense was uneven for the entire regular season, but by the AFC Championship they were starting to look like the relentless, yard-eating machine we are accustomed to seeing in Black and Gold.
The rest: I think that the coaching of both teams is top of the line – and pretty much a wash. Yes, Whisenhunt used to be Big Ben’s offensive coordinator and knows #7 very well. But Pittsburgh’s D guru Le Beau practiced against Whis’ offense every day for years so he knows how Ken likes to call plays. I anticipate trick plays, good clock management, strong leadership and intensity on both sidelines. This will be a terrific coaching chess match.
Special Teams will be vital in this Super Bowl. Pittsburgh punter Mitch Berger has struggled recently but Arizona’s punter is hurt – how hurt I don’t know, but struggles on punts could lose this game. Both teams have dangerous return men. Pittsburgh’s Mewelde Moore is one of those “do everything” types who are always productive for the Steelers and Holmes is downright dangerous on a return. Arrington’s knee is hurt and the Cardinals need him badly. They’ve been averaging 21 yards on kickoff returns and 10 on punts. They’ll need every inch of turf Sunday. Both Reed and Rackers are good kickers so I think neither team will hesitate on long field goals if needed.
Bottom line: In addition to all of the above keys, Arizona must score early in order to win. They have to shake the ruthless Steelers’ D – make them know that they are human and might lose. If the Cards struggle and settle for three-pointers, Pittsburgh will feed on that failure and become an unstoppable Leviathan.
Straight Up: Cardinals
Spread: Arizona +7.0
O/U: 47 – Over. The only way for Arizona to win is to score their usual 30+ points and I think Tomlin’s team is good for at least 17 – some of it on defense no doubt.