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01-19-2009, 07:56 AM

Five keys

Breaking down the crucial elements of Cardinals-Steelers

By Eric Edholm and Matt Sohn
Jan. 19, 2009

There are plenty of good story lines in Super Bowl XLIII.

There’s the rich Super Bowl tradition of the Steelers with their five wins in six previous appearances, going for a record sixth title, coupled with the playoff-starved Cardinals, who are playing in their first Super Bowl, with their last championship coming in 1947, when the franchise was based in Chicago.

There also is the rematch of Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant head coach/OL coach Russ Grimm facing their former team, the Steelers, whom they helped to win Super Bowl XL.

Want more? How about the QB battle of Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger, each winners of one Super Bowl? Or how about the return to Tampa, where Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin cut his coaching teeth?

All fun, all interesting and all sure to dominate the pregame talk. But we want to give you a quick look at how the game might turn out from an X's and O's standpoint. Here are five keys we think will play a big role when the teams face off on Feb. 1:

1) Fitzgerald, Boldin need to dominate one-on-one

With all due respect to the Patriots, the Cardinals’ WR tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin is the league’s best — and strongest — duo. For the Cards’ “O” to consistently move the sticks, Fitz and Boldin need to play like it. The Cardinals are indulging in fantasy if they expect their O-line to wall off the Steelers’ tremendous pass rush throughout the contest, and there will be numerous times when Kurt Warner is hurried into throws. Fitz and Boldin must attack the ball in such instances and outmuscle the “D” for extra yards.

2) Keeping containment critical for Cardinals

There’s no quarterback in the NFL better at throwing on the run than Ben Roethlisberger. Although he rarely picks up real estate with his legs, his ability to throw darts after escaping the pocket affords his receivers extra time downfield to shake free of the coverage. Therefore, the Cardinals should prioritize containing Pittsburgh’s hulking quarterback even more than focusing on bringing him down. DL Darnell Dockett and DE Antonio Smith must fight the urge to sell out on the pass rush and therefore risk overpursuing.

3) Wilson must lay lumber in the secondary

Don’t let the Cardinals’ impressive wins over the Panthers and Eagles fool you into thinking they’re as tough as the boys from Pittsburgh. They’re not, especially on the defensive side. But it’s incumbent upon the Cards to match the physical intensity of the Steelers, and the player who bears the burden of responsibility for getting his cohorts into the mindset is SS Adrian Wilson. Wilson’s a classic thumper who will knock the head off unsuspecting receivers, and he must deliver an early blow or two that his teammates can ride the energy of.

4) Holmes threatens to take it to the house

Even though offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has diversified Pittsbugh’s offense, it remains a ball-control system content with keeping things simple. But the Cardinals won’t allow Pittsburgh to dink-and-dunk them to death, so the Steelers must mix in some downfield tosses — or at least routes — to keep Arizona honest and potentially hit the home run. The player best-suited for such a role is the fast-twitching Santonio Holmes. His elite deep speed can, at the very least, stretch a defense vertically to clear up congestion underneath.

5) Will Super Bowl XLIII become Troy’s story?

Kurt Warner is so prodigious in his blitz recognition that he should know exactly where the pressure is coming from. But he’ll still have a tough time accounting for Troy Polamalu because the superb safety lacks a defined role. He’s a freelancer’s freelancer with the speed, instincts and awareness to cover ground better than any safety in the game. Warner and his targets’ peripheral vision must be fine-tuned every time Polamalu’s on the field. At the same time, Polamalu can’t be victimized by Arizona’s patented trick plays.

For more in-depth coverage of the big game, be sure to check out the latest issue of PFW, now available online in PDF or print format at PFWstore.com and at newsstands and bookstores. Also, this Web site will preview the game with features and blogs right up until kickoff on Super Sunday.