So many Super Bowl matchup features this week will breakdown how Ben Roethlisberger compares to Kurt Warner. Or how Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin compare to Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. The problem is, none of these things matter. The Cardinals don’t care how Fitzgerald stacks up against Ward. They care how Fitzgerald stacks up against Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor.
Here is how the actual personnel matchups we’ll see on the field come Sunday.
Cardinal quarterback vs. Steeler safeties
Pittsburgh thrives on using superstar strong safety Troy Polamalu in a variety of ways. He is both the focal point and X factor in Dick LeBeau’s defense. However, no QB in football – other than Peyton Manning and Tom Brady – is as good at diagnosing a defense presnap as Kurt Warner. With two weeks to prepare, Warner shouldn’t have much trouble figuring out what the Steelers are doing with Polamalu on each play. Of course, once the ball is snapped, Warner will be facing not just the best strong safety in the game, but also one of the shrewdest free safeties (Ryan Clark). The seventh-year veteran Clark is rock solid and alert in coverage, and isn’t likely to give up anything deep.
Cardinal running backs vs. Steeler linebackers
The resurgence of Edgerrin James is a big reason why Arizona has won three consecutive games to reach the promise land. Youthful as James has looked in gaining 203 yards on the ground this postseason, he’s going up against perhaps the most physical quartet of linebackers in the NFL. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodely are primarily pass-rushers, but both men have enough speed to cover the flats against the run. Larry Foote is a demon against blockers inside, and his partner, James Farrior, is as smart as they come. The Cardinals won’t be able to get a lot of linemen to the second level against the Steeler front three, so the play of fullback Terrelle Smith will be critical. That is, when Arizona actually runs. Teams simply can’t move the ball on the ground against this Steeler defense. Expect James to play far more than Tim Hightower for pass-blocking purposes. But also, expect James to see no more than 11-13 carries in this game.
Cardinal receivers vs. Steeler cornerbacks
The unsung heroes of the league’s best defense are the cornerbacks. Veteran Ike Taylor drops interceptions but makes up for it with stifling, physical coverage. No. 2 starter Deshea Townsend is brilliant when he slides into the slot, and reserves Bryant McFadden and Willie Gay almost never get caught out of position. Best of all is that the Steeler corners can all thrive in man and zone coverage.
That said, there’s no defense for the way Larry Fitzgerald is playing right now. The Steelers are such a good tackling secondary that Anqaun Boldin, who led the league in average yards after the catch this season, should be contained fairly easily. And Pittsburgh has shown that they can eliminate just about any slot receiver if need be, so the speedy Steve Breaston doesn’t make many people nervous. But what to do about Fitzgerald?
Cardinal offensive line vs. Steeler defensive line
Russ Grimm has done a tremendous job developing this fairly ho-hum Arizona front five. Left tackle Mike Gandy is consistent in pass protection, and second-year monster Levi Brown is starting to show the power that got him drafted early in the first round. Between the tackles, Reggie Wells is an unsung hero, Deuce Lutui has improved his fundamentals and Lyle Sendlein is nothing if not consistent.
But improved play from Arizona doesn’t change the fact that the Steelers front line is flat-out more powerful. The Cardinals won’t be able to move nose tackle Casey Hampton inside, and no team has been able to stymie the lateral dexterity of end Aaron Smith. Brett Keisel and Travis Kirschke rotate at the other end position often. Both operate at an elite level, thanks to their innate knowledge of Pittsburgh’s system.
Cardinal offensive coaching vs. Steeler defensive coaching
This is the matchup that could decide the Super Bowl. For Arizona you have perhaps the hottest young head coaching candidate in the game, Todd Haley, calling plays. For Pittsburgh there’s perhaps the most revered defensive pioneer, Dick LeBeau, dialing up blitzes. So far, Haley has drastically out-coached every defensive coordinator he’s come across in January. Having Ken Whisenhunt, a former Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator, for a head coach certainly helps. But LeBeau has a defensive mastermind for a boss, as well (Mike Tomlin). And he hasn’t lost as chess match all season.
Steeler quarterback vs. Cardinal safeties
Ben Roethlisberger is a step below mediocre when it comes to making presnap reads, but he’s two steps above marvelous when it comes to improvising after the snap. The key Sunday could be what the Cardinals do with utility star safety Adrian Wilson. They’ll blitz him on multiple occasions, but if Big Ben can bide time and get outside the pocket (which you have to assume he will) then Arizona will be depending on Antrel Rolle and often-used backup Aaron Francisco to maintain deep coverage. Rolle has become a ballhawk as of late, and Francisco has blossomed into a more reliable tackler. But neither is spectacular. Roethlisberger, at his best, is spectacular.
Steeler running backs vs. Cardinal linebackers
Willie Parker is playing his best football of the season for Pittsburgh, while Karlos Dansby is playing his best football as a pro for Arizona. If this were a one-on-one matchup, it’d be a push. But there are other factors involved. For the Steelers, they’ll rely on Mewelde Moore for six or seven carries, plus whatever he can bring in the passing game. And they’ll call on the powerful Carey Davis in short-yardage situations. But neither of these players strike fear in opponents, which is why Arizona D-coordinator Clancy Pendergast can trust that his other linebackers, Gerald Hayes and Chike Okeafor, will make plays. Hayes is golden when he’s reacting instead of thinking. Okeafor is more of a pass-rusher.
Steeler receivers vs. Cardinal cornerbacks
Everyone talks about Hines Ward, but in fact, the key to slowing Pittsburgh is containing Santonio Holmes. Holmes is the only veritable big-play threat on offense. And he uses his speed not just vertically, but also horizontally (which, as the Ravens found out in the AFC title game, can lead to big plays vertically when Holmes finds daylight in running after the catch).
Fortunately for Arizona, they have a young corner who can be a stopper: rookie Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie. The first-round pick from tiny Tennessee State has been almost perfect the last two months. If Rodgers-Cromartie gets an opportunity to handle Holmes, the Steelers could be forced to play dink and dunk with Ward and tight end Heath Miller. That’s not an entirely bad thing. Ward is a flat-out better player than Cardinals cornerback Rod Hood, and Miller could soften the Cardinal run defense with a few seven-or eight-yard receptions. One more critical matchup that could prove huge: Pittsburgh No. 3 receiver Nate Washington vs. Arizona nickel back Ralph Brown. Washington is great downfield, while Brown is terrific underneath.
Steeler offensive line vs. Cardinal defensive line
Both of these units were their team’s Achilles heal for much of the season. Now, whichever side wins the battle in the trenches could very well hoist the Lombardi Trophy afterwards. The Steelers are going to have trouble handling defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. Center Justin Hartwig and right guard Darnell Stapleton have improved their game down the stretch, but Dockett is one of those rare players with uncanny initial quickness, followed by immovable strength.
The Steelers occasionally struggle to pick up blitzes and stunts, which, coincidentally, is exactly what Arizona has used so masterfully during the postseason. Neither team has great talent on the edges, which is why this matchup will be decided by in-game strategy and cohesiveness.
Steeler offensive coaching vs. Cardinal defensive coaching
Perhaps the most significant factor of all in this Super Bowl is Ken Whisenhunt’s familiarity with the Steeler organization. Pittsburgh uses virtually the same playbook that Whisenhunt worked out of when he called plays in Super Bowl XL. The receivers coach working under him at the time was Bruce Arians, Pittsburgh’s current offensive coordinator. Arians has a better relationship with Roethlisberger than Whisenhunt did, and he’s perhaps a little more pass-oriented. But when these teams met a year ago in Arizona, it was boldly apparent that Whisenhunt’s knowledge of the Steeler offense gave the Cardinals a tremendous advantage. Not to be forgotten in this equation is Clancy Pendergast. He’s one of the best game-preparation defensive coordinators in the NFL.
For more from Andy Benoit, visit www.NFLTouchdown.com