Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFL Nation [Print without images]

Monday, January 19, 2009
First Look: Steelers-Cardinals


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.