Steelers-Cards has plenty of intrigue
The dust has settled from the conference title games, leaving us these 10 burning questions about Super Bowl XLIII, John Clayton writes.
PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers have the Terrible Towel. The Cardinals were supposedly the terrible team from the terrible division, the NFC West.
Super Bowl XLIII is a game that should please everyone. The Cardinals are the ultimate underdog; they were the first No. 4 seed to host an NFC Championship Game. The Steelers are a proud franchise trying to win their sixth Super Bowl.
Ratings should be strong because the Steelers are one of the better draws in sports. But the Cardinals could be the more fascinating story. Their owner, Bill Bidwill, has long been criticized for the way he's run his franchise. The Steelers were criticized in a similar way until they won four Super Bowls for owner Art Rooney Sr. during the 1970s.
From the NFL's standpoint, it's a retro type of game featuring two families who have a long history of ownership in the NFL.
"If you win six, nobody else has ever won six,'' Steelers owner Dan Rooney said. "We're going to play it how we see it. We're going into Tampa with the idea of playing well and having fun.''
Here is the first round of questions heading into two weeks of Super Bowl hype.
2. How well do these teams know each other?
There is virtually no history between these two teams. The Steelers and Cardinals have played only eight times in 36 years, with the Steelers holding a 5-3 edge in the series. Three of those meetings came when the Cardinals were in St. Louis -- the Steelers won games in 1972, 1979 and 1988. The Cardinals beat the Steelers 21-14 on Sept. 30, 2007. The Steelers beat the Cardinals in 2003 and 1997.
3. What are the injuries heading into the Super Bowl?
Ravens RB Willis McGahee takes a scary hit from Ryan Clark in the AFC Championship Game.
4. Payback for Whisenhunt, Grimm?
The most interesting subplot is the coaching situation. Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant head coach Russ Grimm were bypassed for the Steelers' job after Bill Cowher departed in 2006. The job went to Mike Tomlin. Obviously, the Rooney family hasn't second-guessed hiring Tomlin. He took last year's team to the playoffs and is now in the Super Bowl, despite playing one of the toughest schedules in the league. As it turns out, Tomlin was the perfect coach to follow Cowher because he brought Cowher's enthusiasm along with an aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of football.Whisenhunt and Grimm struck gold in the Arizona desert, producing Bidwill's first trip to the Super Bowl. Publicly, Whisenhunt and Grimm will say only good things about their former employers, but privately they want to prove Pittsburgh's ownership wrong, and the best way they can do that is by beating the Steelers.
5. Will blitzing be a big factor?
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau may be tempted to blitz Kurt Warner, but he should be careful. During the regular season, Warner was the best quarterback in the league against the blitz. He completed 134 of 208 passes for 1,645 yards and 14 touchdowns in blitz situations, for a quarterback rating of 103.1. Warner is known for his ability to get rid of the ball quickly and he's fearless in the pocket while waiting for receivers to get open.On the other side, it's a 50-50 proposition when teams blitz the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger was 95-of-180 for 1,158 yards with five touchdowns and five interceptions against the blitz in the regular season. Here's the key stat: Roethlisberger was sacked 29 times in 209 dropbacks against the blitz in the regular season.
6. Will Whisenhunt empty his bag of tricks?J.J. Arrington took a handoff and flipped the ball across the field back to Warner, who fired a long touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald. The bye week buys Whisenhunt more time to experiment. During his tenure with the Steelers, Whisenhunt was a master of the trick play. He'd run three or four a game out of various formations, and he used them to liven up practices and make life more interesting for his offensive players. The Steelers know many of Whisenhunt's tricks, but not all of them. Whisenhunt likes to devise plays that catch a defense in overpursuit. Parker said Whisenhunt always has five prepared trick plays and he'll use two. "You know he's going to do something,'' Parker said. "He always does.''
7. Can Warner's play-action success continue?
Warner's ability to work the play-action pass has been one of the highlights of the Cardinals' playoff run. Warner was 4-of-4 for 92 yards on play-action passes Sunday. How Warner works the play-action pass will clearly affect how LeBeau uses safety Troy Polamalu. No safety in football has the range of Polamalu, who can line up as a deep safety or charge the line of scrimmage to blitz. The Cardinals' ability to excel in play-action is amazing considering how inconsistent they are running the ball. In three playoff games, Warner has completed 93.4 percent of his play-action passes. The average play-action completion is 13.4 yards.
8. Will Tomlin continue to take chances?
Unlike his predecessor, Tomlin likes to roll the dice in big games. He doesn't play close to the vest, and that could be dangerous in the Super Bowl. The Steelers beat the Chargers in the divisional round, despite a failed fake punt and a failed fourth-down conversion near the goal line. Before the end of the first half Sunday, Tomlin endorsed one play too many and it cost Pittsburgh three points. The Steelers were at the Ravens' 21-yard line with 16 seconds left. Roethlisberger threw a short pass over the middle to Moore, who was tackled at the 12. Roethlisberger tried to line up to spike the ball, but the clock expired. The Steelers could have entered the half with a 16-7 lead instead of 13-7.
9. What's the best individual matchup?
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor against Fitzgerald. Although the Cardinals move him to different spots on the field, Fitzgerald normally lines up on the left side. Taylor handles the right side of the Steelers' defense. Taylor had his best season in 2008, allowing 59 completions against him in 108 attempts, and getting beaten for only two touchdowns. Taylor gained so much respect leaguewide that he was named the AFC's third alternate at cornerback for the Pro Bowl. Naturally, the Steelers will give Taylor help, most likely with Clark.Another interesting matchup will be Anquan Boldin against Bryant McFadden on the other side of the field. The Steelers match up against the Cardinals' receiving corps reasonably well. Deshea Townsend is the team's third corner. He has 78 career regular-season starts.
10. Who has the QB edge?Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. In fact, he would have one more Super Bowl ring than Manning. In the playoffs, he has completed 151 of 248 passes for 1,983 yards, with 14 touchdown and 11 interceptions.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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