Sunday, January 18, 2009 Updated: January 20, 1:10 PM ET
Steelers-Cards has plenty of intrigue
By John Clayton ESPN.com
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.
Edgerrin James has been effective, but the Cardinals are fueled by the passing game.
1. In the year of great running offenses, what happened to the running teams?
Two of the three worst running offenses in the playoffs are in the Super Bowl. The Cardinals were the worst running team in football during the regular season. They averaged only 73.6 rushing yards a game. During the playoffs, they have run better, but it's not their strength. Edgerrin James, who figures to be released after the Super Bowl, had 73 yards on 16 carries in Sunday's 32-25 victory over the Eagles. In three playoff games, he's had 52 carries for 203 yards. Those numbers are decent, but not great.
The Steelers were the 10th-worst rushing team during the regular season, averaging 105.6 yards. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians made a commitment to run more in the playoffs, and the results have been mixed so far. After rushing for 146 yards against the Chargers in the divisional playoffs, Willie Parker was held to 47 yards in Sunday's 23-14 victory over Baltimore.
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?
Both teams are in pretty good shape. The biggest questions for the Cardinals revolve around their defensive front seven. Linebacker Travis LaBoy, who has battled an ankle injury over the past month, suffered a biceps injury early in Sunday's game. His status will be evaluated over the next two weeks. Defensive end Antonio Smith, who has quietly become a force during the playoffs, suffered a right knee injury, but it didn't look too serious. The warm weather in Glendale, Ariz., aided WR Anquan Boldin on Sunday. Had the NFC Championship Game been held in cold weather, he might not have been able to stay warm enough to play through his bad hamstring. Boldin was able to play the entire game and caught four passes for 34 yards. He should be fine by Super Bowl Sunday. Punter Ben Graham played despite a groin injury.
As expected, the Steelers came out of a physical game against the Ravens with some banged-up players. Wide receiver Hines Ward sprained his right knee in the first half and didn't return. Ward said he'll have an MRI on Monday, but he thinks he'll be OK. Mewelde Moore, the team's third-down back, suffered an ankle sprain in the second half, but he was walking without a limp in the locker room. Safety Ryan Clark was helped off the field after crashing into Ravens halfback Willis McGahee with 3:29 left in the fourth quarter. McGahee was carted off the field. Clark may have suffered a concussion, and he'll undergo some tests Monday morning.
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?
With an extra week to prepare, don't be surprised if Whisenhunt loads up four or five trick plays to confuse the Steelers. On Sunday, the Cardinals called a play in which 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?
Although Warner naturally will be the media darling of the Super Bowl, Roethlisberger has a chance to put his name among the top quarterbacks in history. Warner is 8-2 in the playoffs and has 22 postseason touchdowns compared to 13 interceptions. Roethlisberger won't come close to Warner on stats, but he's accomplished a lot in a short time. Big Ben is 7-2 as a playoff quarterback, and he's only 26. He's won a Super Bowl and is trying to win his second. The Steelers should be a factor for many years. They'll have one of the easiest schedules in the league next season and will be a Super Bowl contender.
By winning his second Super Bowl, Roethlisberger would enter the argument as the best big-game quarterback next to 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.