Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger seems to be endlessly fighting injuries but always finds his way onto the playing field. During the Steelers' run to the 2005 Super Bowl title, Roethlisberger leaned on a tremendous running game but struggled once the team reached the Super Bowl. In his first three playoff games of ‘05, Roethlisberger tossed seven touchdowns and had a QB rating of over 124.0 in two of those outings. However on Super Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, Roethlisberger completed just 9-of-21 passes for 123 yards and was intercepted twice. A similar performance in Tampa could spell disaster for Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile, Arizona QB Kurt Warner continues to defy the odds with his outstanding play. The former Super Bowl MVP has racked up 770 yards passing in three postseason games and has connected on eight touchdowns. Throughout his career, Warner has struggled to protect the ball but he’s been sufficient during the playoffs. Warner has turned the ball over only twice and has helped limit the Cardinals’ offense to three total turnovers. Additionally, he’s received adequate protection in the pocket and has been sacked just three times in the postseason. If Arizona’s offensive line keeps Warner upright, he should find success down the field.
Advantage: Arizona. Given Big Ben’s struggles in Super Bowl XL and Warner’s supporting cast, the Cardinals’ signal caller holds a slight edge.
The Cardinals’ running game has experienced a major resurgence of late but is still somewhat of a question mark. The Steelers come in with the NFL’s top ranked defense and is allowing only 80 yards per game on the ground. RB Edgerrin James has come alive since rejoining the starting lineup, racking up 203 yards on 52 carries in three playoff games. During the regular season, Arizona managed a mere 74 yards per outing. In addition, rookie RB Tim Hightower has moved back into his role coming off the bench. Hightower failed to rush for more than 35 yards in the final eight weeks of the year but has teamed up with James to supply the Cardinals with a formidable backfield.
Pittsburgh’s success on the ground will be dictated by the health of RB Willie Parker. “Fast Willie” has been in and out of the lineup this year but should be near full strength given the two-week layoff. Parker has rushed for over 100 yards in four games this season, all resulting in Pittsburgh victories. Backup RB Mewelde Moore filled in admirably during the regular season and is a weapon in the passing game as well. In limited playing time, Moore rushed for 588 yards and compiled 320 yards receiving. So far in the postseason, the Cardinals have given up just 76 yards rushing per contest but they still remain a notch below the Steelers’ run stuffing unit.
Advantage: Pittsburgh. Parker is back healthy and the Cardinals’ regular season woes could resurface against a stout Pittsburgh run defense.
Although the Steelers’ receiving corps is no slouch, this is an area where the Cardinals excel. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin make up arguably the best wide receiving tandem in the NFL. Furthermore, Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban are both capable players. Fitzgerald has already complied a playoff record 419 yards receiving while finding the end zone five times. Boldin has plenty to prove after fielding countless questions regarding his sideline blowup with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Arizona hasn’t received much production at tight end but Leonard Pope and Ben Patrick could be wild-cards given the attention Pittsburgh will devote to the Cardinals’ receivers.
Like Roethlisberger, Steelers WR Hines Ward comes in nursing an injury. Ward is recovering from a MCL sprain but has repeatedly stated that he’ll be on the field in Tampa. Ward and his counterpart, Santonio Holmes, are Pittsburgh’s version of Boldin and Fitzgerald. Ward is a jack of all trades and thrives on underneath routes while Holmes is the team’s primary deep threat. The Steelers’ wide receivers have been quiet in the playoffs, as Ward has a team-high seven catches for 125 yards in two games. TE Heath Miller gives Pittsburgh a solid target over the middle. After an inconsistent start, he’s reeled in at least three catches in each of the Steelers’ last eight games.
Advantage: Arizona. The Cardinals are nearly untouchable in this department.
One area of concern all season long in the Steel City has been pass protection. Pittsburgh’s offensive line allowed 49 sacks during the regular season and could find the going tough against an aggressive Cardinals defense. Roethlisberger has taken several shots and even suffered a concussion against a lackluster Cleveland Browns defense in Week 17. Given the way Arizona has been getting after the passer and forcing turnovers, this should be a major area a concern for the Steelers faithful. If the Cardinals are able to pressure Roethlisberger and force him into bad decisions, Arizona’s chances of pulling the upset will rise substantially.
The Cardinals' offensive line has outplayed its regular season performance thanks to improved play on the interior. LT Mike Gandy and LG Reggie Wells have been anchors along an offensive line that has been otherwise suspect. RT Levi Brown continues to experience growing pains from time to time but has been sufficient in the postseason. At center, Lyle Sendlein was shaky earlier in the year but has shown steady improvement in the past two months. Sendlein’s play, coupled with RG Deuce Lutui’s continuing progression has been a vital element of Arizona’s run to the Sunshine State.
Advantage: Arizona. With the Cardinals’ improved performance and Pittsburgh’s inability to keep Roethlisberger off his back, Arizona gets the nod.
Both units are disruptive but the Steelers were able to muster more consistency in the trenches. Thanks to their linebackers’ ability to rush the quarterback, DT Casey Hampton and company have been able to almost exclusively focus on stopping the run. Pittsburgh did just that, allowing their opponents to rush for 100-plus yards only five times all year. If the Steelers can bring Arizona’s recent success on the ground to a halt, they could be poised to win their sixth Lombardi Trophy. In that scenario, the Cardinals will be forced to be one-dimensional on offense and Pittsburgh’s secondary will be able to key on Fitzgerald in the passing game.
Arizona was adequate against the run all year but has taken it to another level in the postseason. thanks in large part to the defensive line. Both the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers came in averaging over 150 yards per game rushing while the Philadelphia Eagles were surpassing 106 yards per contest. Thanks in large part to the defensive line, the Cardinals allowed only 76 yards per game on the ground in those three playoff outings. Arizona is led by DT Darnell Dockett who’s capable of playing all positions along the defensive line. Veteran DT Bryan Robinson and DE Antonio Smith have helped fortify things in the trenches for the Cardinals.
Advantage: Pittsburgh. Arizona’s defensive line has been superb of late but the Steelers still hold a slight edge up front.
Although they’ve been ineffective at times this year, Pittsburgh likes to employ a hard nosed approach in the running game. The Cardinals' linebackers are excellent in space but aren’t known as the most physical bunch around. If the Steelers can consistently reach the second level of Arizona's defense, their lack of physicality could be exploited. Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes man the inside linebacker positions but there is little depth behind them. Chike Okeafor, Bertrand Berry and Travis LaBoy split time between linebacker and defensive end, but are better suited in a pass rushing role. Pittsburgh’s running game will likely be the key to their game plan in order to open things up for Roethlisberger.
It’s hard to imagine a better linebacking corps in the league than what the Steelers deploy. Led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, Pittsburgh’s linebackers are the heart and soul of the NFL’s top-ranked defense. On the year, Harrison totaled 101 tackles, 16 sacks and forced seven fumbles. LaMarr Woodley, a pass-rushing specialist, finished with 11.5 sacks and has four sacks in two playoff games. Veteran James Farrior has been a model of consistency, leading the Steelers with 133 tackles. This unit was an integral part of the team’s pass rush that racked up 51 sacks on the season. Arizona was able to counter Philadelphia’s blitzing tendencies in the NFC Championship with the running game and short passes. Given their success against the Eagles, the Cardinals will be confident against Dick Lebeau’s blitzing schemes.
Advantage: Pittsburgh. The Steelers’ vaunted linebacking corps is arguably the best in the NFL.
While Troy Polamalu might be the best safety in the NFL, Arizona’s secondary has evolved into an extreme ball-hawking unit. The Cardinals have forced 12 turnovers in three playoff games and the secondary has done their fair share with nine interceptions. Adrian Wilson is among the hardest hitting safeties in the league and rivals Polamalu as one of the best in the business. Antrel Rolle’s transition to free safety has been fairly smooth and he’s a terrific playmaker with the ball in his hands. The emergence of rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has helped transform Arizona’s secondary into a fearsome unit. If DRC and Rod Hood can hold up in single coverage, Wilson and Rolle will be able roam free and continue to create big plays.
Polamalu is certainly a difference maker in the secondary but the fate of the Pittsburgh defense may lie in the hands of cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend. The Steelers allowed a NFL-best 157 yards per game through the air but will be facing their toughest test of the year. If Pittsburgh is able to neutralize Fitzgerald and Boldin, the Cardinals will return to the desert still in search of the franchise’s first Super Bowl title. Thankfully for Arizona, the Steelers haven’t seen much of a challenge on the perimeter, as the AFC North severely lacks game-breaking wideouts. Even if Pittsburgh can simply slow down the Cardinals’ receivers, namely Fitzgerald, they could be headed back to the Steel City with their second Super Bowl title in the last four years.
Advantage: Push. The secondary that’s able to make the biggest impact could very well dictate the winner of Super Bowl XLIII.
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