If Warner delivers, Cards could soar
Super Bowl XLIII seems to be all about the Steelers. The Cardinals can change that if QB Kurt Warner writes a great ending to what has been a storybook season, writes John Clayton.
A new generation of Steelers fans has mobilized to find tickets in road venues throughout the country. For Super Bowl XL in 2006, Steelers fans turned Detroit's Ford Field into their home field by gobbling up a majority of the tickets and making the Seahawks feel like outsiders.Steelers fans have flocked en masse to Tampa. A local newspaper reports there are approximately 30 bars in the Tampa area that will fill up with Steelers fans Sunday. Cardinals fans don't have even one bar to claim as their own.
The Steelers defeat the Cardinals 27-23 in one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever.
Kurt Warner is the Cinderella story of the 2008 season. He entered training camp as the backup to Matt Leinart, unsure if this was going to be his last season. At training camp, he talked about wanting to play two more seasons, but only if he could be a starter. He came to camp looking for a chance to play.
He got his chance and had an MVP-type season in leading the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, a story almost as improbable as his own. The Cardinals have been an NFL laughingstock for years. Before 2008, the Cardinals hadn't had a home playoff game since 1947, when they were the Chicago Cardinals. Since then, the franchise has moved twice, from Chicago to St. Louis to Arizona, in efforts to increase revenues.
Former Steelers offensive coordinator and current Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt went to the desert in 2007 with a creative game plan and a disciplined style that demanded player accountability. It has taken him only two seasons to bring Arizona to the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals took the easy road through the regular season by winning the worst division in football, the NFC West. After clinching the division in early December, the Cardinals coasted toward the end of the season and played horribly. With Whisenhunt's leadership, the Cardinals rebounded by winning three playoff games and giving owner Bill Bidwill his first George Halas Trophy.
The Steelers did it the hard way, surviving a schedule considered one of the toughest in decades. They entered the season with a schedule that featured 12 games against teams that had .500 records or better in 2007. The Steelers' opponents had a combined .598 winning percentage in 2008, the highest in the NFL. The Steelers, with one of the best statistical defenses in NFL history, ended up going 7-4 against teams with .500 or better records in 2008 (12-4 overall).
Ownership had its own battles. Steelers owner Dan Rooney faced a crisis because his brothers were reluctant to sell their shares of team stock to comply with league rules. Dan and his son, Art, had only a 16 percent share of the team and didn't meet the 30 percent ownership rules.
The team could have slipped out of the hands of the Rooneys. But Dan was able to get his three brothers to sell, and new investors came aboard to keep the team in the Rooneys' hands indefinitely.
They are hoping to be rewarded with their sixth Lombardi Trophy.
1. Warner's challenge: The Cardinals' success is mostly dependent on Warner's passing for between 250 and 300 yards. He has three 1,000-yard receivers: Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Although the Cardinals have been running ball adequately in the playoffs with Edgerrin James, they need Warner to have a big game.
The Steelers' strength is their stifling pass defense, which could give them a big edge. They gave up 156.9 passing yards per game in the regular season and limited quarterbacks to a 63.4 quarterback rating. The Steelers should be able to handle the Cardinals' running attack, but if they can prevent Warner from completing 60 percent of his passes and keep him close to the 200-yard mark, it may be hard for the Cardinals to win.
2. Pressure point: Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau created the zone blitz, but he faces some interesting decisions when it comes to pressuring Warner, who is one of the best in the league against the blitz. In the regular season, Warner completed 64.4 percent of his passes against the blitz. He had 14 touchdown passes and was sacked only five times in blitzing situations. His quarterback rating against the blitz was 103.1.
LeBeau's biggest asset is the ability of LBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to get to the quarterback. Harrison and Woodley combined for 27½ sacks in the regular season. If Harrison and Woodley can pressure Warner, the Steelers can drop seven defenders into coverage against the Cardinals' three-receiver offense.
3. The Fitzgerald factor: The Steelers know how good Fitzgerald is. LeBeau calls him the most physically gifted receiver he has ever seen. Fitzgerald will be matched up mostly against Ike Taylor, who has developed into the Steelers' best coverage cornerback. Taylor has been allowed to play a lot of man coverage, but he will have safety help behind him Sunday, most likely from Ryan Clark.
Fitzgerald has been unstoppable during the playoffs, but the Steelers hope to hold him to less than 80 yards. In three playoff games, Warner has targeted Fitzgerald 35 times, completing 23 passes to him for 419 yards and five touchdowns.
4. Bull's-eye on Big Ben: After losing to the Steelers three times this season, Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce advised the Cardinals not to blitz Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Don't expect the Cardinals to listen to Pryce. Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast loves to blitz and knows that Roethlisberger was sacked 29 times in blitzing situations during the regular season. Adrian Wilson is the best blitzing safety in football. The problem facing Pendergast and his players? Roethlisberger is the toughest quarterback to tackle and can still throw with two players hanging on him.
5. Swan songs? The Cardinals may be building a special team under Whisenhunt, but they need big games from two starters who might not be around next season. Boldin wanted to be traded all year, and his sideline shouting match with offensive coordinator Todd Haley during the NFC title game might have been the final straw. Boldin is a team leader and a great player, but he's never going to be happy until he can get his salary equal to or better than Fitzgerald's ($10 million a year). That's not going to happen. This is the biggest game in Boldin's career, and he will be focused even though it could be his last in a Cardinals uniform.
The other possible Cardinals short-timer is James, who was benched during the season and appears headed toward a release in February. James has run well in the playoffs, but he's an aging back with declining speed and a big salary. Still, he's one of smartest backs in the league and could have one big game for Arizona left in him.
6. Odds against Ward: Because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee, it will be difficult for Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward to win his second Super Bowl MVP award. Even if he were 100 percent healthy, that might be tough. There have been only four two-time Super Bowl MVPs in 42 years, and none was a receiver. Ward knows he won't be 100 percent, but he revealed Monday he played all but one game in 2007 with a torn posterior cruciate ligament and a torn MCL, which contributed to his worst season (71 catches for 732 yards) since 2000. Ward said he hasn't had much pain, but he hasn't tried to do any running and cutting; he has only jogged straight ahead.
Ward plans to be in uniform, but most of Pittsburgh's passing offense may have to fall on Santonio Holmes and tight end Heath Miller. The education of playing the 2007 season with an MCL tear, though, could help Ward on Sunday. He knows what he's dealing with, and he also knows this injury isn't as bad as last season's.
7. Getting a grip: The slippery Super Bowl footballs will likely be a problem for both quarterbacks, but Roethlisberger should have an edge over Warner because Roethlisberger has bigger hands and doesn't throw as much as Warner. Super Bowl footballs are different than regular-season and playoff footballs because they have more paint on them from decals and logos. Equipment men also aren't given the extra time during the week to break in all the balls that will be used in the game.
"It's not the easiest thing to grip in the world and [quarterbacks] are the only position that has to deal with it on a constant basis,'' Roethlisberger said.
8. Officiating crew: Referee Terry McCauley will be calling the game, leading an all-star group of officials that rated as the best in 2008. His presence could dictate a lower-scoring game. McCauley is a very good official and has Super Bowl experience. His regular-season games averaged a total of 41.93 points, the sixth lowest among the 17 referees and a little more than two points per game below the league average. Over the past three years, though, his games averaged 39.36 points, the lowest average among the 17 referees. The Cardinals win shootouts. The Steelers win lower-scoring games.
9. First down is key: The game could come down to which team performs the best on first down. Warner knows Pittsburgh's defense is very difficult to beat in long situations on second and third downs. In the Steelers' two postseason games, quarterbacks completed only 47.6 percent of their passes on second- and third-and-long situations. The quarterback rating in those situations was 45.1.
10. Legacies on the line: Much has been made about the chances of Warner to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame after his retirement, but it's actually Roethlisberger who has the most to gain in this game. At 26, Roethlisberger has won seven of nine playoff games during his first five seasons. Warner has two MVPs and three trips to the Super Bowl. Whoever gets that second Super Bowl ring could have the edge on the other for getting a bust in Canton. At 37, Warner hopes to play two more seasons, so this could be his last chance at a ring. Roethlisberger is on a talented team with a great organization, so he might get more chances in the future. Warner needs to beat Roethlisberger to help his Hall of Fame case.
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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