AFC North: first look sbxliii

First Look: Steelers-Cardinals

January, 19, 2009
1/19/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

It took three games for the Pittsburgh Steelers to settle their score with the Baltimore Ravens. But with Sunday's 23-14 victory in the AFC Championship Game, Pittsburgh can now set its sights on Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa.

The Steelers (14-4) will face the surprising Arizona Cardinals (12-7) for a chance to earn their sixth championship. The Cardinals thwarted an all-Pennsylvania Super Bowl with a 32-25 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, setting up this unlikely matchup.

Here is a first look at three challenges facing the Steelers:

1. Can the Steelers stop the 'Whiz'?

Few NFL head coaches are more familiar with the Steelers' personnel than Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt. Before coming to Arizona, Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh and faced its rugged defense every day in practice.

Whisenhunt also knows the offensive players extremely well. Not only is he familiar with the Steelers' schemes, but he's familiar with the tendencies of their players. That could be very important. Being on the coaching staff, Whisenhunt was privy on many occasions to discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of Pittsburgh's roster, and many of those players are still with the team.

2. How will Pittsburgh defend WR Larry Fitzgerald?

  Eagles-Cardinals highlights
  NFL.com Video
  Larry Fitzgerald refuses to be tackled as he spins his way into the end zone for a touchdown.

This has been a huge issue for all of Arizona's playoff opponents and something Pittsburgh will need to solve if it wants to win another championship. Fitzgerald has ascended to the upper echelon of wide receivers with his postseason performance, and the return to health of teammate Anquan Boldin makes Arizona's offense even more dangerous.

Pittsburgh usually shadows elite receivers with its top cornerback in Ike Taylor. But with so many other weapons in the passing game, that could be a dangerous strategy. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has two weeks to come up with a plan that could determine the outcome of this game.

3. Will rust be an issue?

The Steelers just had a bye two weeks ago and benefited greatly by getting healthy before two playoff wins over the Ravens and San Diego Chargers. But does Pittsburgh really need another two weeks off in between games?

At some point these breaks in the schedule could affect a team's routine. With two weeks of hype and preparation left before the Super Bowl, you wonder if this particular break benefits the Cardinals, who won their division but still had to fight through three challenging postseason games to get to this point, and not the Steelers.

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