Super XLIII Preview: Cardinals-Steelers

Matthew GilmartinSenior Analyst IJanuary 30, 2009

The most popular sporting event in the country, the Super Bowl, is only two days away.

The NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals got to the big game with a completely unexpected three-game romp through the NFC playoffs. They now have a legitimate chance to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history.

The AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers advanced this far because they're so dynamic as a team. They will have an opportunity to win their league-record sixth Super Bowl title. 

But if they want to hoist the Lombardi Trophy after the game, the reincarnated Steel Curtain will need to contain Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald, whom many consider the best in the game. 

Even for the stingiest defense in the league, keeping Fitzgerald from being a difference maker will be a tall order. If Fitzgerald gets even the smallest space, you can bet he'll make the catch. 

It helps that he has one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the modern era, Kurt Warner, throwing to him. Plus, he has Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston—both surpassed 1,000 yards receiving in the regular season—keeping the defense honest.

Steelers safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark will be instrumental in stopping the Cardinals' dynamic trio of receivers. Polamalu and Clark are definitely capable, as they complement each other's game well. 

Polamalu is athletic, has great range, and his hands rival that of some of the NFL's top receivers. Clark is a tackling machine, and he has exceptional speed. If there is any pairing of safeties in the league that can hold Fitzgerald down, it's Polamalu and Clark.

If Pittsburgh linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, who combined for 28 regular-season sacks (the most of any pair of linebackers in the league), can get pressure on Warner, Polamalu and Clark have a great chance to be successful against Fitzgerald, Boldin, and Breaston.

But the Cardinals have found an upstart ground game in the playoffs. Arizona has averaged 111 rushing yards per game in the postseason (fourth during that time among playoff teams) thanks to the duo of veteran Edgerrin James and rookie talent Tim Hightower.

The element of surprise has also helped Arizona's running attack during the playoffs.  Teams normally expect them to pass first, but they have actually run the ball just over 50 percent of the time. So when they do run, it catches opponents off guard and allows Edge to use his savvy, and Hightower his power.

But the Cardinals' newfound running game is only that—upstart. And even with a supposedly much-improved running game, they're still only averaging about 110 yards per game. That's above average, but not great by any means. 

It only looks amazing in their case because their running game was absolutely atrocious before, garnering only 73 yards per game at the conclusion of the regular season. The Steelers should be able to stop it.

The Steelers' best offense is their defense.

Pittsburgh's tenacious defense often either forced three-and-outs or gave up a touchdown. Since they only gave up a touchdown on a drive of 50 yards or longer three times in 22 opposing drives in the AFC playoffs, they forced a punt and gave the offense good field position following most defensive stands.

That takes considerable weight off the shoulders of the offense before it even steps on the field.

Having a defense that gives your offense superb field position for almost every drive is a huge plus when you have an offensive line as porous and bad at blocking as the Steelers front line.

Pittsburgh allowed 49 sacks, fourth-worst in the NFL, and paved the way for a running game that averaged only 105.6 yards per game during the regular season.  That's not the kind of offensive line that a Super Bowl team is supposed to have.

It doesn't matter how good your running backs are—even if the starter is the hottest back in the playoffs—or how quick your quarterback's release is if your offensive line can't block effectively. And if there's a team whose defense you can't move the ball on without a good offensive line, it's the Steelers.

The Steelers will have to rely on their league-best defense to win the Super Bowl.  They've played some of the best offenses in the league, and beaten them soundly. Now they face their greatest test of the season, but they should rise to the occasion.