|Written by Julian Dread.
The prevailing wisdom in the NFL, as pimped over and over by ESPN.com writer Bill Simmons, is that the one team who does its one best thing better than anyone else does anything is the team that will win the Super Bowl. It has held up year after year. With hardly any exceptions. The question then becomes, "Do the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have the best defense in the league, have an advantage over Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals, who throw it around as well as anyone in the league?"
The complicated answer to this simple question will determine the winner of Super Bowl XLIII.
The most common saying in football seems to be that defense wins championships. Well, that should answer the question for us, shouldn't it? After all, only three quarterbacks have thrown for over 200 yards against the Steelers vaunted defense this year. And there is absolutely no way the Cardinals can win Sunday without Kurt Warner throwing for at least 300 yards, which only one quarterback has done all year.
If it seems so obvious, why is feeling more and more difficult to pick the Steelers. The thought is that a team has to establish the run in order to set up its passing lanes. But the Cardinals know that. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt practiced against the Steelers for years as the offensive coordinator for the Steelers, and knows that trying to establish the ground game early and coming up short will put his team in a hole against the Steelers, who will try and ground it out on offense and keep Warner off the field. If the Cardinals know they won't be able to run early, they may try some reverse psychology and attempt to pass first to establish the run.
Whisenhunt knows the Steelers will bring complex blitzing schemes against his offensive line and try and rush Warner into bad choices. But Warner has been an expert at keeping his cool, and if he can operate some quick screens and slants early to force the Steelers to back-off, the Cards may be able to neutralize the rabid Steelers defense.
The key then will be for Troy Polamalu and crew to apply some devastating hits on the Cards talented receiving core. You can not stay with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald man-to-man, and you won't challenge them up top for balls. The Steelers best hope will be to put the fear of God into these receivers and make them grow alligator arms.
The Cardinals have found ways to light opposing defenses in the playoffs, to the tune of 33 points per game. Given the Steelers grind-it-out offensive style, they probably won't need 30+ to beat Pittsburgh, but they will need to score on at least four possessions. The Steelers will try and limit the Cards' possessions, meaning Warner can not afford to throw a pick, and if he throws two, the Cards will almost certainly have no chance.
If Warner can avoid long distance third down situations by utilizing his quick reads, he should be able to create space for Edgerrin James, who has been decent but not great in the playoffs, averaging four yards per carry. He and Tim Hightower and J.J. Arrington will have to average at least three against the Steelers for the Cards to win. It's impossible to imagine a team winning a Super Bowl without being able to run the ball at all. If the Cards can't sustain at least one drive in the first quarter with some help from the run, they will be revealed and the Steelers will drop back in coverage while still throwing in zone blitzes.
On the other side of the ball, Ben Roethlisberger will be looking for redemption for the stink bomb he laid in Super Bowl XL. The question is not whether "Ben" has the talent or heart, but possibly whether his back will hold up. Roethlisberger will have to avoid the blitzing Cardinals, and rely on his strength to help him get off some passes under duress.
Roethlisberger will need Willie Parker to break off a few big runs early to give him more time, but the Cardinals have been amazingly effective at stopping the run in the playoffs thus far against the likes of Atlanta's Michael Turner and the Eagles' Brian Westbrook. If the Cards can keep Parker from getting loose, Roethlisberger will have to hope that Santonio Holmes and an injured Hines Ward can find space against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Rodderick Hood, who has shown some big-play susceptibility in the playoffs. With the Cards proving their prowess to stop the run, the Steelers may surprise people by trying to pass more than expected against a Cardinals team that got burned by Donovan McNabb for almost 400 yards.
And this is where things get interesting. If the Cardinals can limit turnovers and make the Steelers try and beat them by doing what they don't do best – pass the ball – they could benefit from turnovers and flustering Roethlisberger. Many see this opportunity as a chance for Big Ben to prove that his Super Bowl flop three years ago was a fluke and that as an older and wiser QB, he will be there to lead his team to victory. If you think Warner will be smart enough and accurate enough to avoid big mistakes, which I do, then the only way you can be confident in a Steelers cover is if you think Roethlisberger is ready to play at Warner's level. And I just don't think he's there. And he may never get there. Warner is a Hall of Famer and will prove it Sunday in what could very well be another major Super Bowl upset.
Last updated on January 31, 2009.