6:28 PM ET, February 1, 2009
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, FL
Heading into Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals feature quarterbacks who have already won championships. It's the Cardinals, however, who may have an edge in knowing what to expect from the Steelers' signal-caller.
The Cardinals will make their first appearance in the Super Bowl on Sunday with former two-time league MVP Kurt Warner leading the way against Ben Roethlisberger and the tradition-laden Steelers, who will see an old friend in Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt.
Roethlisberger can join New England's Tom Brady as the only other quarterback to win two Super Bowls by age 26. He helped Pittsburgh beat Seattle in Super Bowl XL in just his second season in the league.
The quarterback still isn't happy with that performance, as he completed 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards and two interceptions in the 21-10 victory.
"I obviously got a little bit upset I didn't play so well, I let the guys down and I didn't help the team win the game," Roethlisberger said. "It fuels the fire that you want to come out and play a better game the next time. You have to get over the initial hoopla, the flash, the lights and just make it a game."
While Roethlisberger is in the midst of his prime years, the same can't be said for Warner. The Cardinals quarterback made his NFL debut at the age of 27 in 1998, was named the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIV after leading St. Louis over Tennessee, and lost in Super Bowl XXXVI with the Rams to New England.
Two years after that loss, an injury-plagued Warner was cut by St. Louis and later signed by the New York Giants in 2004, lasting only one season with New York before giving way to Eli Manning. Warner joined Arizona in 2005, but the next season, another high draft pick -- Matt Leinart -- was selected by the Cardinals and eventually installed as the starter.
Warner, though, finally beat out Leinart before this season, starting all 16 games for just the third time in his career and throwing for 30 touchdowns and 4,583 yards. It's probably not a coincidence that it will also be his third Super Bowl, bolstering his credentials as a possible Hall of Famer.
"My approach is hoping that every player that I've played with, every place that I've been, that in some way, shape or form, I leave my stamp on those people and those places," Warner said. "That's what I want my legacy to be. The football stuff, that's all gravy."
Warner has credited Whisenhunt for having the courage to name the 37-year-old the starter over the 25-year-old Leinart.
Whisenhunt only took the job with Arizona after he and top assistant Russ Grimm were both bypassed after interviewing with the Steelers for the head coaching vacancy created when Bill Cowher retired after the 2006 season. Whisenhunt, who was Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator from 2004-06, insisted this week he has no hard feelings toward the Steelers.
"Why would I?" he said. "I don't see why you wouldn't want an NFL job. I had a great opportunity here. There were a lot of things that I thought were in place that would help us have an opportunity to win. I think we have shown that, and I am excited about that."
The perennially downtrodden Cardinals had won only one playoff game since 1947, but Whisenhunt quickly transformed them into winners, first by ending a string of eight straight losing seasons with an 8-8 mark in 2007. They took advantage of a weak NFC West this year to earn their first playoff berth in 10 seasons despite a 9-7 record, and were underdogs in all three wins in the playoffs against Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia.
"It has been a roller-coaster ride for eight years," Arizona Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson said. "To finally get to this point, to win an NFC championship, means a lot."
It's possible that Whisenhunt's time with Pittsburgh may give him an edge in going up against Roethlisberger. Both tried to downplay reports of a rift between the two during their time together with the Steelers, but after Whisenhunt complained about Roethlisberger's poor play in the 2006 season, the quarterback fired back.
"I don't agree with Whis. There were a lot of things I didn't agree with Whis about, and that's another one," Roethlisberger said at the time. "I had a bad year. I'm sure Whis had a bad year once in his career."
Instead of hiring Whisenhunt or Grimm -- a Pittsburgh assistant from 2000-06 -- the Steelers took a chance on the unproven Mike Tomlin. It seems like the Steelers hired the right man, as they have won consecutive AFC North division titles under Tomlin and now have an opportunity to win a record sixth Super Bowl.
The 36-year-old Tomlin, who would set a record as the youngest coach to win an NFL title, has downplayed the coaching angle in this Super Bowl.
"Ken Whisenhunt is not going to play a snap and (Pittsburgh defensive coordinator) Dick LeBeau is not going to play a snap," Tomlin said. "It's going to be execution. As coaches, we've got to put guys in great positions, situationally, to take advantage of their skills. But that's not going to be the story of this football game. Quite frankly, football evolves. Teams evolve. Schemes evolve."
The matchup between Arizona's pass-oriented attack and LeBeau's top-rated defense will go a long way toward determining the outcome. Pittsburgh did not allow a 300-yard passer all season, and Warner topped that figure six times during 2008 before throwing for 770 yards, eight touchdowns and only two interceptions in the three playoff games.
Much of that yardage has been amassed by All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has been a one-man highlight reel in the postseason with 23 receptions for 419 yards and five touchdowns. He had three scores in Arizona's 32-25 win over Philadelphia in the NFC title game.
"Larry Fitzgerald, is quite simply, the best receiver in the world down the field in one-on-one situations," Tomlin said. "If we're to be successful in Tampa, we need to limit the number of times we're downfield with him one-on-one. Invariably, he's going to come up with the football. The (video) tape tells us that."
The Steelers couldn't handle Fitzgerald last season in a 21-14 loss at Arizona as he had 10 catches for 120 yards. Warner threw for 132 yards and one TD in relief of Leinart in that game -- the only time he has ever faced Pittsburgh.
Whisenhunt earned bragging rights over Roethlisberger, who was 17-for-32 for 244 yards and two touchdowns, but was picked off twice and sacked four times.
In addition to Fitzgerald, the Cardinals have two more 1,000-yard receivers in Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. Boldin, who has been bothered by a hamstring injury, has downplayed his feud on the sideline with offensive coordinator Todd Haley during the NFC championship game while Breaston ran a punt back 73 yards for a go-ahead score in last season's win over the Steelers.
Pittsburgh's offense isn't considered as big a threat as Arizona's, but it will clearly be more effective with Hines Ward in the lineup. Ward sprained his right knee in the AFC championship victory over Baltimore, but the Super Bowl XL MVP doesn't expect to sit out this one.
"I don't have a brace on, I'm walking around fine," Ward said Monday. "I'm not going to be 100 percent, I'm not going to trick anybody. But I think I'm going to be able to go out there and perform like I'm used to."
Ward had five receptions for 123 yards three years ago against the Seahawks, including a 43-yard TD from Antwaan Randle El in the fourth quarter that helped seal that win. He is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game.
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Pittsburgh defeated divisional rival Baltimore for the third time this season to advance to the franchise's seventh Super Bowl appearance. The Steelers have won five of their six appearances, including Super Bowl XL three years ago. This team features many of the same players, but has a different persona. The Cardinals' franchise history is very different. Much like the Super Bowl champions from the previous three years, the Cardinals have caught fire at the right time. Two years ago, the Cardinals' current head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, and the Cardinals' current assistant head coach, Russ Grimm, were with the Steelers organization and were finalists to be Bill Cowher's successor. They both lost out to Mike Tomlin, but still have a great understanding of the Steelers franchise -- including how to attack their personnel, especially QB Ben Roethlisberger and the offensive line. Meanwhile, if Tomlin wins this game, he will become the youngest NFL head coach ever to win the Super Bowl.
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|Avg Points Allowed||20.3||22.3|
Team Averages & NFL Ranks
|TEAM OFFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|TEAM DEFENSE||TEAM||PER GAME AVERAGE|
|Pass Yds Allowed||PIT|
|Rush Yds Allowed||PIT|
Head to Head Matchups (Since 2001)
|Pittsburgh leads 2-1|
|Sep 30, 2007||PIT 14, @ARI 21|
|Nov 9, 2003||PIT 28, ARI 15|