Make the Call: Ken Whisenhunt and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Dilemma

Buck CargalCorrespondent IJanuary 29, 2009

In the final practice of the 2002 season, Jon Gruden played quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  His performance made him Super Bowl XXXVII's Most Valuable Person.

Gruden, who had been head coach and offensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders from 1998-2001, schooled his Bucs on every on-field call the Raiders would make the next day.  When certain words were heard, certain Raider actions would follow.

Tampa Bay, a four-point underdog, demolished the Raiders, 48-21.  Oakland QB Rich Gannon was intercepted five times, and the Bucs scored at will through the second and third quarters.

The Buccaneers knew what was coming on almost every play.

Six years later, Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt and assistant head coach Russ Grimm lead the Cardinals into Super Bowl XLIII against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator and Grimm the offensive line coach for the Steelers three years ago, when they won Super Bowl XL.

(Arizona third-string QB Brian St. Pierre also has spent a chunk of his career as the third-string QB for the Steelers.)

Whisenhunt and Grimm know the Steelers—offensively and defensively—inside and out.  They know the weakness of Dick LeBeau's No. 1-ranked defense, the limitations of the Steeler offense, and the vulnerabilities of the Black-and-Gold's personnel.

It's likely they know a lot of the terminology the Steelers use to make on-field calls and last-second adjustments on offense and defense.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin won't make the arrogant mistake that the Raiders made—not disguising their calls or making terminology changes.  Anything the Steelers employed two years ago that is still being used?  If so, it will be changed for Sunday.

But compliance with terminology changes does not come automatically.  After a full season, calls become second nature.  Adjustments become automatic, eliminating the need or pause for thinking.

A change for one game creates opportunity for the opponent.  Every on-field call may be made correctly.  But was it in time?

A split-second hesitation, caused by trying to remember what a new word means, may cause a too-late adjustment in coverage.  A moment's hesitation in remembering what that new call indicates could lead to a linebacker now dropping into the right zone.

Kurt Warner has shown the ability to find that hole in the defense quickly.

A pause, and a quick snap, could lead to a missed assignment on the offensive line and a blitzer not being picked up.  The Steelers have already shown missed pick-up assignments during the playoffs and have trouble with speed rushers—like the ones for the Cardinals. Pittsburgh allowed the second most sacks in the league in 2008.

Former Steeler cornerback Rod Woodson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that, without even considering the terminology issue, the Cardinals already presented matchup problems for the Pittsburgh defense.

"I think it's going to be a tough task in the secondary for the Steelers just to match up on a play-by-play basis and shut those receivers down," Woodson told columnist Ed Bouchete. "To me, this is the toughest draw the Steelers had in the NFC.

"Playing against Philly, I think they could out-tough the Eagles. Playing against the Arizona Cardinals, against spread-out football, who can find all their receivers? And Kurt Warner's doing an outstanding job. I think it's a tough draw for (Pittsburgh)."

Six years ago, terminology, experience, and a former head coach/offensive coordinator brought Oakland's then No. 1-ranked offense to its knees in the Super Bowl.

In three days, the world will see if the same applies when terminology, experience, and a former offensive coach and former offensive line coach go against the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.