NFC West: first look

First Look: Steelers-Cardinals

January, 19, 2009
1/19/09
2:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Arizona Cardinals, Super Bowl XLIII

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Once the Cardinals won the NFC Championship Game, coach Ken Whisenhunt knew the Steelers would be waiting for him in Super Bowl XLIII.

"How could it not have been the Steelers?" Whisenhunt said Monday.

While the Cardinals and Steelers share little meaningful history as franchises, a long list of personal ties arms this Super Bowl with story lines to spare. On the field, Arizona faces another set of challenges. We take a quick look at three keys for the Cardinals:

1. Protect Kurt Warner.

The time Whisenhunt spent on the Steelers' staff gives him firsthand knowledge of what the Steelers like to do defensively. Whisenhunt has tremendous respect for Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He has extensive knowledge of the Steelers' defensive personnel.

Assistant head coach/offensive line coach Russ Grimm was with Whisenhunt in Pittsburgh. Expect Whisenhunt, Grimm and offensive coordinator Todd Haley to draft the best possible plan for handling the Steelers' blitzes.

Unlike the Ravens, who aim to confuse, the Steelers aim to out-execute. Their strong run defense and well-rehearsed blitzes threaten to make the Cardinals one-dimensional at the expense of Warner. Arizona cannot afford to let that happen.

The Cardinals may or may not have the personnel on their offensive line to match up with what awaits them in this game. They should have a sound plan. They should also have plenty of confidence after handling the Eagles' blitzes better than anyone could have expected.

Arizona will need to stick with the running game even if the gains are modest. That will help open up the play-action passing game, which Warner has used to great effect in the postseason.

  NFC Championship: Kurt Warner highlights
  NFL.com Video
  Warner goes 21-of-28 passing for 279 yards and four TDs as he reaches his third Super Bowl.

2. Use that inside knowledge.

The Steelers have changed their offense since Whisenhunt left to become the Cardinals' head coach before the 2007 season. They run more one-back personnel groups than they did in the past. They trust quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to make more adjustments.

Despite all that, Whisenhunt has an advantage in this matchup because he knows better than most what makes Roethlisberger uncomfortable. Whisenhunt must take what he knows into the Cardinals' defensive meeting rooms to help defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast put together a sound plan.

The book on Roethlisberger used to be that he didn't read coverages as well as some quarterbacks. Experience has probably made him better in that area, but having two weeks to prepare puts Arizona in a good position here.

Roethlisberger completed 9 of 21 passes with a 22.6 rating in Super Bowl XL after Seattle had two weeks to prepare for him. He'll be better this time, but if Pendergast can come up with a creative and informed plan, the Cardinals might have a chance to slow the Steelers' passing game.

3. Use human nature to their advantage.

The Cardinals have played the underdog role to perfection. They'll get another chance in this game, with some added incentive.

The Steelers nearly hired Grimm as head coach, only to reverse course and hire Mike Tomlin instead. Before the playoffs, some called the Cardinals one of the worst teams in postseason history. The Cardinals can expect Steelers fans to flood the Tampa area, creating the feeling of a road game for Arizona.

Extra motivation isn't the issue here. Every team wants badly to win the Super Bowl. Both teams will be at their emotional best.

But the Cardinals have used outsiders' slights -- some perceived, some real -- to help them focus on the little things. They have become more disciplined in their approach to defense. They are tackling better. They are executing more precisely on offense. They are playing with an edge.

First look: Eagles-Cardinals

January, 11, 2009
1/11/09
4:48
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

No. 6 Philadelphia Eagles (11-6-1) at No. 4 Arizona Cardinals (11-7), Sunday, 3 p.m. ET

Another week, another chance for the Cardinals to avenge a regular-season defeat against one of its regular-season conquerors -- this time with a Super Bowl berth at stake.

The Cardinals caught a break when the Eagles defeated the top-seeded Giants in the divisional round, sending the NFC Championship Game to University of Phoenix Stadium. Home-field advantage will arm the Cardinals with additional confidence and a better chance at advancing. But this matchup remains a potentially difficult one for Arizona.

We take a quick look at five challenges facing the Cardinals:

1. Stop pressure up the middle.

The Panthers' best pass rusher, Julius Peppers, applies most of his pressure from the outside. The Eagles are tougher across their defensive line. They have the ability to generate pressure up the middle, where the Cardinals have sometimes been vulnerable.

The fastest way to make Kurt Warner appear 37 years old is to pressure him up the middle. The Eagles have the potential to apply that type of pressure with their linemen and with blitzes. The Cardinals need a strong game in pass protection from their interior offensive linemen and their running backs.

  Eagles vs. Cardinals
  NFL.com Video
  A look ahead to the NFC Championship Game between the Eagles and Cardinals.

2. Containing Brian Westbrook.

The Cardinals have played strong run defense against top running backs over the last two weeks. The Eagles' Westbrook is more elusive than the Falcons' Michael Turner and far more of a receiving threat than Turner or the Panthers' DeAngelo Williams.

Arizona has vastly improved its tackling in the playoffs. The trend must continue. The Cardinals must become gang-tacklers. Failing to finish even one play against Westbrook could expose Arizona to a game-changing play.

3. Defeating the Eagles' aggressive coverage.

Philadelphia cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Asante Samuel relish taking receivers out of their comfort zones with aggressive tactics. Brian Dawkins is one of the most intimidating safeties in the game. Receivers tend to hear his footsteps, leading to lapses in concentration.

Dawkins forced Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin to fumble during the Eagles' 48-20 victory over Arizona on Thanksgiving Day. The Cardinals are a different team this time around. They won't be traveling on a short week, as they were then, and the stakes are much higher.

A hamstring injury has slowed Boldin recently. Even if he doesn't play, this game provides the Cardinals' receivers a chance to prove themselves against the best. Arizona dropped five passes when the teams played on Thanksgiving.

The Cardinals have to like their chances playing at home. The Eagles, having defeated the Vikings and Giants in successive weeks, have to like their chances against the lowest-seeded division winner.

Both defenses have the ability to force turnovers. The Cardinals are 10-0 this season when they finished tied or ahead in turnover differential. Warner, under frequent pressure when the teams met in November, tossed three interceptions in that game.

The turnover stat will likely determine whether the Cardinals make the first Super Bowl appearance in team history.

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