BR.com takes a look at the two teams that will do battle in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIII – the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals – and what big matchups to watch for.
Steelers Regular-Season Rankings
Total Offense - 22 (331.9) Total Defense - 1 (237.2)
Rush Offense - 23 (105.6) Rush Defense - 2 (80.2)
Pass Offense – 15 (225.4) Pass Defense - 5 (200.0)
Points Per Game – 20 (21.7) Points Per Game - 1 (13.9)
Cardinals Regular-Season Rankings
Total Offense – 5 (378.3) Total Defense - 19 (331.5)
Rush Offense – 32 (73.6) Rush Defense - 16 (110.2)
Pass Offense – 1 (304.7) Pass Defense - 22 (221.2)
Points Per Game – T3 (26.7) Points Per Game - 28 (26.6)
Cardinals LT Mike Gandy vs. Steelers OLB James Harrison
Gandy is an eight-year veteran that has bounced around the league before putting together a stellar season for Arizona. But he will have his hands full with the relentless Harrison, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Harrison's 16 sacks in 2008 set a career high and a Steelers single-season franchise record. At 6-foot-4, 316 pounds, Gandy will have to be light on his feet to hold off Harrison's charge. The linebacker is adept at both speed-rushing around the edge and overpowering linemen with leverage.
Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. Steelers CB Ike TaylorFitzgerald has been an absolute monster this year, leading all receivers with 12 regular-season touchdowns to go along with seven 100-yard receiving games. In the playoffs, he's been even better. Fitzgerald's 419 yards in the postseason broke Jerry Rice's previous high of 409, set in 1988. Taylor will likely be physical off the line of scrimmage to bump Fitzgerald, but it is nearly impossible to contain him one-on-one. Look for help from the Steelers' safeties.
Cardinals CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie vs. Steelers WR Santonio HolmesThe rookie Rodgers-Cromartie will probably be paired with the speedy Holmes, which should be an interesting match. Rodgers-Cromartie really excelled towards the end of the season, earning the December NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month award after totaling 15 tackles, six passes defensed, a fumble recovery and two picks. But, if the Cardinals neutralize Hines Ward, Holmes will become the go-to guy in the passing game. He finished 2008 with 55 catches for 821 yards, both career highs.
Cardinals DEs Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith vs. Steelers QB Ben RoethlisbergerArizona does not have a standout sacker on their defense, but Roethlisberger is a guy to change that. He's absorbed an NFL-high 46 sacks, but that may be more a product of his holding on to the ball for too long. Roethlisberger is able to take the punishment because of his big frame and playmaking ability. For Berry and Smith (end Travis LaBoy could also be a factor if he is injured) each have two postseason sacks, and bringing down the Steelers' quarterback will be just as important as keeping him bracketed in the pocket.
I think this game comes down to the Steelers' pass rush and how the Cardinals handle it. Kurt Warner, the two-time NFL Most Valuable Player, is going to be under duress all night at Raymond James Stadium.
Now, Warner can combat that heat with hot routes to receivers quickly slanting over the middle, which he's done in the past. Remember, Warner used to be a successful Arena League signal caller, and the game is much faster in that league.
Also, if Edgerrin James can keep chugging along and continue showing fans the Edge of old, it would force the Steelers to remain honest and think twice before bringing the house at Warner.
Of course, that's easier said than done. Just as with the Ravens, it is nearly impossible to run on Pittsburgh. That is just a fact. But even a modest showing from the rushing attack would make a big difference.
For the Steelers, it would not be smart of overlook the Cardinals' opportunistic defense. The unit seemed to come up with a big turnover in every game towards the end of the season. If they do, that could change momentum and perhaps recruit some of the non-Steelers fans in attendance to jump on the Arizona bandwagon.
And since this isn't a Ravens game, I'll give you my prediction for the outcome.
The Steelers are simply too rough, tough and mean to lose at this point, and I don't think Arizona can withstand such a dogfight. I am betting (not in the gambling sense) that the Cards keep it close, with a few trick plays turning into points, but Pittsburgh comes out on top.
Steelers 24 – Cardinals 21