January 27, 2009
By Donald Starver
A little less than a week to go until the Super Bowl, and I’m already tired of all of the hype. Let’s get it on already!!!
If I had my way, the NFL would eliminate the extra week between the AFC/NFC Championships and the Super Bowl. In my opinion, two weeks is just too much time. Fans get tired of hearing the media rehash the same stories over and over (and over, and over, and over) again. By the way, did you know that Cardinals’ head coach Ken Whisenhunt was once the Steelers offensive coordinator and was passed over for the Steelers’ head coaching job that eventually went to Mike Tomlin? Oh, so you’ve heard that story 97 times today too? Darn, I thought I had a scoop.
Well, since I can’t get a scoop on the Whisenhunt story, I guess I’ll have to write my normal pre-game analysis.
First of all, these two teams aren’t strangers. They played one another in 2007. That was both Mike Tomlin’s and Ken Whisenhunt’s freshman years as head coaches. Whisenhunt’s Cardinals won that game 21-14.
For those who say that the Cardinals don’t have a chance against the vastly superior Steelers, I would remind them that that was exactly what they said last year (when the Cardinals beat the Steelers despite the supposed hopelessness of their cause), and these two teams haven’t changed very much.
So let’s take a look at exactly how the Cardinals beat the Steelers last year, and see if those factors still apply, or if things have changed significantly.
The thing that I remember most about that game was that the Cardinals played “Steeler football” much better than the Steelers did. They manhandled us. Everyone expected the Cardinals to be a finesse team, but instead they came out and showed the Steelers just how physical they could be. They controlled the line of scrimmage, particularly on defense, and imposed their will on the Steelers. Nobody was surprised that they were able to outplay the Steelers’ offensive line. Afterall, just about every team dominated the Steelers O-line last year. But nobody expected the Cardinals to have success against the Steelers’ defense. Some attributed it to “the Gruden Effect”; Coach Whisenhunt knew Dick LeBeau’s defense, and was able to game plan against it. I don’t really buy that theory, but it was suggested by many.
Let’s first look at what happened when the Cardinals were on defense. Despite a history of being a “smash mouth” football team, the Steelers Offense were the ones who got their mouths smashed. The Cardinals lived in the Steelers’ backfield. They sacked Ben Roethlisberger 4 times, and had him on the run plenty more. It was definitely not a fun day for Mr. Roethlisberger.
Even more telling was the fact that they held the Steelers’ running backs to 52 yards rushing. That’s right, 52!!! Willie Parker got 37 yards on 19 carries. That’s 1.9 yards per carry. I hate to say this, but that’s not very impressive. Especially not against a team that was thought to be “soft” prior to the game.
So why did the Cardinals’ defense dominate the Steelers’ offense so effectively? Well, the biggest reason, in my opinion, was Sean Mahan. The former Steelers center was absolutely owned by Cardinal’s DT Darnell Dockett. Dockett was bull rushing Mahan on every play, and Mahan couldn’t hold his position. Dockett spent more time in the Steelers’ backfield than Willie Parker did. He was the biggest reason that the Steelers’ running backs couldn’t run the ball. Moreover, he also harrassed Big Ben all day, and ended up with 2.5 sacks.
That type of performance was Sean Mahan’s trademark, and it’s a key reason why he’s no longer on the team. The Steelers now have Justin Hartwig, and he is much more stout at the point of attack than Mahan was. I doubt that Dockett will be quite as effective this time around.
But it wasn’t only Sean Mahan who played poorly. The entire Steelers offensive line was plagued with penalties. They had 4 false starts, and 2 holding penalties. That’s just not going to win you very many games. Of course, two of those penalties were on Mr. Dependable, Willie Colon. If there is one thing that Steelers fans can count on, it’s Willie Colon getting called for at least one penalty every game. You can set your watch by it.
The Steelers offensive linemen weren’t the only ones making mental errors. The defense also had their share. Ike Taylor was penalized for taunting. I know that players get emotional during games, but that’s just not acceptable. Be a professional. If you make a good play, go back to the huddle and get ready to make another one. There’s no need to taunt.
Clark Haggans and Lawrence Timmons both picked up off-sides penalties. In total, the Steelers were penalized 13 times, while the Cardinals only got 5 penalties. The official box score says that the Steelers were penalized 11 times, but that’s only because twice the Steelers had two penalties on the same play, and the Cardinals had the luxury of declining the lesser penalty and taking the one that worked most to their advantage. But regardless of whether there were 11 penalties or 13, either is way too many. A team that beats themselves with mental errors can’t expect to win a Super Bowl. I expect Mike Tomlin to have rectified this problem, and to have the Steelers ready to play both physically AND MENTALLY on Sunday.
The other factor that played heavily into the outcome of that game was special teams. The Cardinals’ Steve Breaston returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown. That seemed to happen a lot last year. It almost never happened this year. That’s another thing that I give Mike Tomlin a lot of credit for. Special teams has been a weakness for the Steelers since the last 3 years of Bill Cowher’s tenure as coach. Tomlin has changed it into an actual strength for this year’s team. The Cardinals shouldn’t count on picking up any free touchdowns due to poor special teams play by the Steelers.
The Steelers were also without Hines Ward during that game. So even if Hines plays hurt during the Super Bowl, he will contribute more than he did to last year’s loss. That is a good thing. Hines is the emotional leader of the team. His presence on the field means a lot, even if it is in a limited capacity.
Despite missing Hines Ward, Big Ben still passed for 244 yards. That not a good outing for Drew Brees, but it is a very good outing for Ben Roethlisberger. Santonio Holmes had 128 yards receiving, and scored two touchdowns. Unfortunately, Big Ben also threw two interceptions.
On defense, the Steelers were fairly successful. The special teams touchdown can’t be attributed to the defense, so they actually held the Cardinals to two scores. The Cards got a rushing touchdown from Edgerrin James, and Kurt Warner threw a touchdown pass to WR Jerheme Urban.
Both Matt Leinart and Kurt Warner played during that game. The Steelers held the two to a combined 225 yards passing, while sacking each quarterback once. Kurt Warner tossed for 132 of those yards, and had a QB rating of 99.7. I’d say he had a pretty good game.
The Steelers did a pretty good job of stopping the run. The Cardinals rushed for 86 yards on 25 carries. However, 9 of those yards came from Matt Leinart, so the Steelers held the Card’s running backs to 77 net yards rushing. The Cards’ longest running play of the game was a mere 9 yards.
The bottom line is that weak offensive line play and mental errors killed the Steelers in a game that they should have won.
So fast forward to this year’s matchup. What will be different, and what will be the same?
Firstly, the Steelers’ offensive line is not going to let Darnell Dockett build a house in their backfield like he did last year. Justin Hartwig will see to that. Hartwig has held his own against much stronger players than Dockett. I don’t think you’ll be hearing Dockett’s name very often on Sunday.
Secondly, the Steelers won’t kill themselves with stupid penalties. Sure, Willie Colon and Chris Kemoeatu are each going to get their mandatory stupid penalties. Probably an off-sides call for Kemo, and a holding call and an off-sides call for Colon. But beyond that, Mike Tomlin is going to have this team mentally ready. Unfortunately, even Vince Lombardi couldn’t keep Kemo and Colon from making stupid mistakes. That’s a sad fact that Steelers fans have just come to accept.
Lastly, the Cardinals will not get a special teams touchdown. Not on THIS Steelers team. Not in the Super Bowl. No way, no how. You can bet your life on that.
So if the Steelers won’t beat themselves by making the same mistakes that they made last time these two teams played, then what SHOULD we look for in this game?
Everyone is predicting that Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are going to be the stars of this game. They are supposedly an unstoppable duo. When you add in Steve Breaston, the Cardinals may have the deadliest receiving trio in the NFL. The Cardinals were the 2nd leading passing offense in the NFL this year.
While the Cardinals’ receivers are scary, the Steelers have faced quality receiving corps before. Let’s look at who they faced in 2008. They held the tandem of Braylon Edwards and Donte Stallworth to 17 yards on 2 catches. They held Dallas’ duo of T.O. and Roy Williams to 5 catches for 48 yards. New England’s duo of Randy Moss and Wes Welker were held to 8 catches for 75 yards. Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh had 16 catches for 110 yards. Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison combined for 9 catches for 151 yards. And finally, the NY Giants’ Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer had 5 catches for 64 yards. So with the exception of Harrison and Wayne (with the help of a guy named Peyton Manning), the Steelers have stopped some of the most potent receiving corps in the NFL.
Kurt Warner has always been a difficult quarterback to play because he is very experienced and can get rid of the ball quickly. Warner is very hard to sack because he reads defenses so well. When defenses try to blitz him, he makes them pay by completing short passes to his receivers or running backs. Just ask the Philadelphia Eagles.
Fortunately, the Steelers have the top ranked passing defense in the NFL. The #1 passing defense facing off against the #2 passing offense should make for quite a battle. The Steelers’ defense was 2nd in the NFL in sacks, so if anyone can get to Kurt Warner, it will be the Steelers.
These two units are pretty evenly matched, and should cancel one another out. That means that the outcome of the game will probably be determined by the matchup of the Steelers’ offense against the Cardinals’ defense.
The first key is probably going to be the Steelers’ running game. The Steelers MUST get Willie Parker going if they hope to win. The Cardinals have a very average run defense, both literally and figuratively. Literally, the Cardinals were #16 out of 32 teams in 2008, so that makes them very average (and if any of you statistics geeks write in about the “mean” versus the “mode”, I’ll shoot myself). The Cardinals weren’t particularly stout against the run during the regular season. However, they seem to have corrected that during the playoffs. In the NFC wildcard game, they held Atlanta’s Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner to 42 yards rushing. Next, they held the Carolina Panthers’ duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to only 75 yards rushing. Finally, in the NFC championship game, they held Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter to 66 rushing yards. Those defensive performances are Steeler-esque.
Steelers’ offensive coordinator Bruce Arians must avoid his tendency of giving up on the run halfway through the first quarter. Arians is in love with the passing game. It’s like girl-on-girl porn to him; he can’t seem to get enough of it. But he has to remember that the running game enables the passing game. Without a legitimate running threat, the defense can concentrate solely on stopping the pass. And that is a formula for failure for the Steelers.
But having looked at all of these elements, the truth is that the outcome of this game will probably come down to one factor; the Steelers’ gazillion dollar man. No silly, not Max Starks. I’m talking about their OTHER gazillion dollar man, Ben Roethlisberger.
As has become a recurring theme this season, the Steelers’ fate will depend on Big Ben. The Steelers will go as far as Big Ben takes them.
If “Good Ben” shows up, then the Steelers will probably leave Tampa with their 6th Super Bowl trophy. “Good Ben” is the Ben Roethlisberger who efficiently manages the game, avoids careless turnovers, and doesn’t take needless sacks. “Good Ben” was the quarterback who made the Pro Bowl last year, and who had one of the highest QB ratings in the NFL.
Contrarily, if “Bad Ben” shows up, then it could be a long day for the Steelers. “Bad Ben” is the Ben Roethlisberger who tries to win the game all by himself, holds onto the ball way too long, throws interceptions at the most inopportune times, and doesn’t seem to realize that throwing the ball away is better than taking a sack. “Bad Ben” was the quarterback who started for the Steelers during most of the 2006 season.
Of course, the Steelers could still win even if “Bad Ben” shows up. Afterall, they managed to win Super Bowl XL despite Ben recording the lowest QB rating by a winning QB in Super Bowl history. In that game, Ben had a QB rating of 22.6. To illustrate just how bad that is, if Ben had spiked the ball after every snap, he would have ended up with a QB rating of 39.6. Yeah, he played that bad.
So history has shown that the Steelers CAN win with “Bad Ben” at the helm. Unfortunately, they aren’t likely to. If “Bad Ben” makes an appearance at Super Bowl XLIII, then Steelers fans may be treated to unpleasant memories of Neil O’Donnell, and the Cardinals should make preparations for a parade in the desert.
From the press conferences, it is clear that Roethlisberger wants to erase the memory of Super Bowl XL. He seems to be embarassed by that performance, and desparately want to do better this time around. Hopefully, he won’t try too hard and put undue pressure on himself.
If Ben remains calm and just takes what the Cardinals give him, the Steelers should leave Tampa with a victory. I fully expect that to happen, and am predicting a 27-14 Steelers win.
Here we go Steelers, here we go!!!!
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