View Full Version : Super Bowl XLIII Steelers-Cardinals pregame analysis

01-26-2009, 06:19 PM
Super Bowl XLIII
Steelers-Cardinals pregame analysis

By PFW staff
Jan. 26, 2009


In Super Bowl history, few teams have meant more than the Steelers. Few teams, until now, have meant less in the Super Bowl era than the Cardinals.

Super Bowl XLIII will be the Steelers’ seventh big game. The Cardinals will be playing in the first title game in franchise history since losing the 1948 championship game when the team was located in Chicago.

There are many other plot lines, including the matchup of Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt, a onetime Steelers assistant, against his old team. It also features the world-class passing attack of Cardinals QB Kurt Warner and WR Larry Fitzgerald facing a Steelers defense that ranked No. 1 in the regular season in yards allowed, passing yards allowed and points allowed and which held the Chargers and Ravens to 488 yards in the postseason.

The Steelers were dominant in the regular season, and many of the players who won Super Bowl XL (with Whisenhunt and Cardinals OL coach Russ Grimm) remain with the team. The Cardinals have only a handful of players who have won a Super Bowl, including Warner with the Rams, but they have been a different team in the playoffs than the one that limped to the NFC West title, beating the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles impressively to earn their ticket to Tampa on Feb. 1.

When the Cardinals have the ball

Warner will be playing in his third Super Bowl after a mostly brilliant season in the Cardinals’ precision, rhythm passing attack. He has been even better in the postseason, cutting down on his mistakes and getting the ball to WR Larry Fitzgerald — despite defenses designed to take Fitzgerald away.

There are two schools of thought on defending Warner: either blitz him and try to flush him out of the pocket or drop seven or eight and play coverage. Warner is great at reading blitzes and getting rid of the ball quickly, so the Steelers must be sure they can get to him if they rush more than four.

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is never afraid to blitz, but he also is the master of zone pressures. Expect him to rush four but drop a lineman and rush a DB or linebacker in order to confuse Warner. LeBeau might not give Warner the same look twice.

Fitzgerald is on a historic run, catching 23 of Warner’s 61 completions the past three games. His total of 419 receiving yards in the playoffs has broken Jerry Rice’s record for the most in one postseason. With strong hands and world-class leaping ability, Fitzgerald should find himself on the other end of some Warner rainbows but also on short routes where he can create after the catch with his quickness and strength.

He’s too tough of a one-on-one matchup for the Steelers — ask the Eagles’ DBs — so look for them to use some kind of bracket coverage to take him out as best they can. Steelers CB Ike Taylor often covers the opponent’s best wideout and could end up shadowing Fitzgerald for a good part of the game.

The other wideouts have not contributed as much in the postseason, and that includes Anquan Boldin, who suffered a hamstring injury and looked rusty against the Eagles. When healthy, he’s physical and dangerous on crossing routes but also able to go over the deep middle. Slot WR Steve Breaston had 1,006 yards in the regular season but has taken a backseat lately; he and RB J.J. Arrington are dangerous receiving options when the Cardinals choose to spread it out.

Much of the Steelers’ defensive success starts with their pass rush and the run-stopping ability of their front seven. The secondary is no slouch, but SS Troy Polamalu is the clear difference maker. He’s known for doing his best work up near the line, but Polamalu has improved his deep coverage.

The Cardinals have manufactured a run game in the postseason, running 100 times to only 95 pass plays. During the regular season, the Cardinals often abandoned the run; they had 658 pass plays to only 340 rushes.

Edgerrin James, Tim Hightower and Arrington have found their roles in the postseason. James has at least 73 yards rushing or a TD in three playoff wins. Hightower has run hard and scored the go-ahead TD on a 3rd-and-goal screen in the NFC title game.

The Steelers have ideal personnel for their 3-4 scheme. DEs Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel hold the point and defend the run well, and NT Casey Hampton can occupy two blockers. ILBs James Farrior and Larry Foote are experienced and smart. The real heat comes from OLBs James Harrison (the NFL Defensive Player of the Year) and LaMarr Woodley (four sacks in two playoff games), who might be the finest pass-rushing pair in the NFL. LeBeau mixes up who is rushing and who is dropping, and each does both well.

The Cardinals’ O-line took much of the blame for the failed run game, but it has come together under Grimm. The same five players — OLT Mike Gandy, OLG Reggie Wells, C Lyle Sendlein, ORG Deuce Lutui and ORT Levi Brown — have started all 19 games, which has helped out the chemistry. Brown was criticized for allowing 11 sacks and making six false starts during the regular season, but the Cardinals have found success running behind Brown on both power and zone plays, especially of late.

When the Steelers have the ball

QB Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t made mistakes in the postseason, and the Steelers are dangerous when he’s on the mark. He throws very well on the run and can improvise on a broken play as well as any quarterback. Roethlisberger has battled injuries but has appeared more confident the past two games. If he can avoid the turnovers that plagued him in the regular season (15 INTs, seven lost fumbles) against a Cardinals defense that has forced 12 turnovers in three playoff games, the Steelers could have a distinct advantage.

The offense will take a big hit if WR Hines Ward (questionable; knee), Roethlisberger’s most trusted target, can’t play. Ward is a tough, clutch receiver who can block and make yards after the catch. If Ward can’t go, expect Nate Washington to start and Limas Sweed to fill the No. 3 role opposite Santonio Holmes.

With his breakaway ability, Holmes can change a game, as he did on a 65-yard TD catch in the first half vs. the Ravens. Washington has deep ability, but both he and Sweed have had trouble hanging on to the ball.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast runs a base “under” 4-3 defense but also mixes in 30-fronts. In this scheme, the Cardinals will use two deep safeties often in both man and zone coverage, but they also like to use a cover-3 shell, which moves SS Adrian Wilson up closer to the line of scrimmage, where he can be a disrupter.

Pendergast likely will have a series of run blitzes and front changes at the ready to combat Pittsburgh’s run game. DTs Darnell Dockett and Bryan Robinson are good gap penetrators, and you will see Gabe Watson come in on heavy fronts to help stop the run on first and second downs. MLB Gerald Hayes is a good downhill tackler.

The Cards struggled defensively in the regular season because of poor gap discipline, especially outside. But WLB Karlos Dansby (23 postseason tackles) has been an active playmaker, and DLE Antonio Smith (four sacks in his past six games) has come on. Smith could have a good matchup against Steelers ORT Willie Colon, who is penalty-prone and a suspect pass blocker.

The pass rush is crucial. If DE Travis LaBoy (biceps) can’t play, Bertrand Berry has starting experience, and others can bring the heat. Berry has two of the team’s seven postseason sacks, and SLB Chike Okeafor, Dansby, Dockett and even Wilson can come after Roethlisberger.

The Cards’ pass defense has been better in the postseason with eight interceptions, two each by CBs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Ralph Brown. But Rodgers-Cromartie, a rookie, struggled a bit against the Eagles, and LCB Rod Hood is a weak link. Expect the Steelers to test Hood deep.

Another potential weakness in the defense could be defending TE Heath Miller, who has had a good postseason and who might play a bigger role if Ward is out. Miller runs the seams well and can separate from linebackers. The Cardinals struggled to contain Eagles TE Brent Celek (10-83-2).

The Steelers would love to establish the run with RB Willie Parker, who ran well against the Chargers but found few lanes against the Ravens. With two weeks’ rest, Parker should be more effective, but the Cardinals contained the run game of all three playoff opponents.

01-26-2009, 06:20 PM
Special teams

The Cardinals’ coverage has been much better against kickoffs (25.0 average to 20.8 in the postseason) and punts (13.1 to 10.6), but that’s still too generous on punt returns. PR Santonio Holmes had a 67-yard TD return in the win over the Chargers, but otherwise the Steelers’ return units are nothing special.

Arizona’s return groups, led by Steve Breaston and J.J. Arrington, are mostly safe. The Steelers have covered kicks and punts well but have had trouble punting effectively with Mitch Berger, who struggled again last week. Steelers PK Jeff Reed is a good bad-weather kicker and has decent length.

Cardinals PK Neil Rackers has a strong but sometimes wayward leg. He has FG distance out to 56 yards or more but also missed two attempts between 30-39 yards and has missed 3-of-4 on 50-yard attempts. P Ben Graham took over toward the end of the season, and nine of his 15 postseason punts have landed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.

The Cardinals’ best special-teamer is Sean Morey, a former Steeler, who made the Pro Bowl as a coverage player and is considered the quarterback of coordinator Kevin Spencer’s units. His blocked punt against the Cowboys was one of the biggest plays of the season. The Steelers’ Anthony Madison had a big game against the Ravens with three special-teams tackle and a good block on Holmes’ 25-yard punt return.

01-26-2009, 06:29 PM
Wow mesa - that's as good a pre-game analysis as I've seen! :drink:

If Ben and the O don't turn the ball over, the OL does its job as they have in the postseason and FWP/MeMo/Russell can get the running attack going, which they should against AZ's front line, they should be the victors. The D needs to continue their physical style of play and turn the tables on the Cards by forcing turnovers, which the O must capitalize on.


02-01-2009, 07:48 AM
Of all the things I worry about in this game, I think a punting disaster may be the biggest

02-01-2009, 07:56 AM
I personally think solid coverage and HAMMERING Warner is the key. He has a 110+ passer rating this season when blitzed. THAT is the "matchup" imo.

02-01-2009, 08:08 AM
The Steeler blitz is not a traditional blitz. the Steelers will often still rush just 4 or 5 men but from different positions. This can cause the QB to read open areas that just are not there. I think one key is, will Warner be able to spot the ambush before he lets go of the ball. As GB stated Warners day is the key to the Cards offence.

02-01-2009, 08:27 AM
Wow mesa - that's as good a pre-game analysis as I've seen! :drink:

If Ben and the O don't turn the ball over, the OL does its job as they have in the postseason and FWP/MeMo/Russell can get the running attack going, which they should against AZ's front line, they should be the victors. The D needs to continue their physical style of play and turn the tables on the Cards by forcing turnovers, which the O must capitalize on.


Profootball Weekly does a pretty good job with out a lot of the manufactured controversy that afflicts other sites.