As the Pittsburgh Steelers head to Arizona for their contest against the Cardinals, fans in the Steel City have used a few common labels to describe the upcoming affair.
Some call it the season's "most important contest" or a "cornerstone game." Others view the upcoming desert duel against the 1-4 Cardinals as a "trap game" against an opponent having familiarity with Pittsburgh and weapons capable of making plays on any down.
The red birds will certainly be enthused to succeed. After all, who could blame Ken Whisenhunt for invigorating his players particularly for this contest? Looking across the field and seeing his formerly discontented quarterback beside the man wearing the headset he once coveted, it is human nature for the head coach to view the Pittsburgh game based on his own vexation.
In his first shot at Pittsburgh in 2007, the Steelers took an early lead against the Cardinals on a deep touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes, but they ultimately lost by a touchdown in the inaugural Whisenhunt "revenge game."
Everybody remembers how the rematch turned out. For those who choose to focus on this storyline, Sunday marks the rubber match.
The Steelers need to take the field on Sunday with swagger and confidence...but moreover, determination and focus!
If the Men of Steel play like champions, their second trip to University of Phoenix Stadium should be more fruitful than their 2007 upset loss. Despite their record, the Cardinals cannot be taken lightly.
After all, barring a couple of plays, this weekend's westward migration could have easily been against a 3-2 Cardinals squad.
Still, momentum is a very real factor in games, and this favors Pittsburgh. The Steelers enter this weekend's game with a two-win streak intact, while Arizona enter the contest off of a disastrous meltdown against the Giants and a Metrodome meltdown that looked like sheer emasculation.
Will both teams' confidence levels reflect their recent results? Or, will the final outcome mark a certainty about the 2011 Nobody Figured League season- that you just never know who is going to win?
With heavyweight opponents awaiting the Steelers in the coming weeks, fans are justified in describing this Sunday's contest as pivotal. Whether a potential trap or a mere measuring stick for things to come, here are 10 things Steelers fans should watch for against the Arizona Cardinals.
For those who agree with most analyst that the Cardinals have little or no chance of winning the game, last week's expected demolition over the Jaguars should serve notice of a football reality: many of the game are going to be tough, and the nail-biters can come from the most unexpected opponents.
On paper, the Steelers' supremacy over the Cardinals seems obvious. They field a championship defense that is due for turnovers against an Arizona offensive line that has struggled to protect young gun Kevin Kolb.
Their offense boasts a well-rounded quartet of contributing receivers, and the offensive line has shown steady improvement. Therefore, the running and passing games are seeing improvement.
Still, despite the seeming matchup advantages, Arizona's roster is not a barren desert oasis. From hopes for the return of Todd Heap to an electrifying young corner and one of the game's premiere receivers, there will be enough playmakers on the red side to keep the Steelers on their heels.
After all, was it not the work of the Cardinals' defensive line and two catches by Larry Fitzgerald that nearly catapulted them to a comeback victory in Super Bowl XLIII? Time has passed, and the Arizona squad of today is not easily confused with the 2008 NFC Champions.
At 1-4, hope is fading faster in Phoenix than water is evaporating.
Despite their record, Arizona is three plays from being 4-1. After losing by a lone point against the Redskins (after leading 21-10), the Cardinals narrowly fell in Seattle. Two weeks ago, Whisenhunt's crew lost their third-straight heartbreaker when the New York Giants, another team that was heavily favored, rallied from a 10 point deficit to win.
Many fans will reference their demonstrative loss in Minnesota, 34-10, as the litmus test that showcases how poor Arizona truly is. As any longtime fan can advise, putting analysis and stock in a single game is simply foolhardy. The Cardinals, despite their issues, have been in position to win nearly every week.
So, will this be a trap game for Pittsburgh? Here are some things to watch for:
1) Are the Steelers moving the ball, but failing to capitalize on opportunities to score points?
2) Are the Cards hanging around despite a relatively well-played game by Pittsburgh? Late in the game, are they within one play of winning?
3) Do the Steelers appear to be entirely schizophrenic with regard to their play? Are there any major lapses?
4) Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers.
While the opportunity is in place for the Steelers to pounce on their wounded opponent, sometimes those are the animals that are most dangerous. Having played opponents tough at home, perhaps Pittsburgh fans should expect nothing less than a late afternoon of anxiety as the Steelers play at University of Phoenix Stadium for the second time.
Naturally, Larry Fitzgerald ranks among the top 10 things to watch in this contest. Steelers fans remember his potential for immediate impact vividly.
After an admirable effort against the league's most dynamic wideout of the time, the Steelers secondary witnessed Larry Fitzgerald torch them in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII. Ike Taylor had contained the phenom for nearly the entire night, but "Fitz" proved that the "ritz" is eventually his destiny in any game.
Will Larry make plays against the Steelers? Yes.
Can the Steelers secondary, ranked best in the NFL against the pass thus far, contain him? Absolutely.
Why? Aside from defensive pressure, two words aptly describe the benefit Pittsburgh's secondary has against the gifted wideout: Ike Taylor.
After shutting him down for most of the biggest night of his career, Taylor looks to extend his streak of "Fitzgerald containment" to a full 60 minutes on Sunday. Yet, for all of his superb play in 2011, the standout cornerback cannot have success against Fitzgerald by himself.
Truly, it is always a team effort stopping such a dynamic threat.
On "The Top 100 Players of 2011," Chiefs coach Todd Haley spoke about the skills of the Cardinals' best player. In summarizing the Super Bowl's final offensive play for Arizona, the coach notes that Fitzgerald found a soft spot downfield against the Steelers secondary, setting up a potential hail mary in a man to man matchup against Troy Polamalu. According to Haley, Troy informed him that he was thankful for the end result of the play as the star receiver would have likely caught the miraculous pass.
To assume this conversation as truth is to understand the respect given by arguably the game's finest safety for Fitzgerald's skill: he is a true retriever at receiver.
On the play, the Steelers defense stopped Fitzgerald on a collaborative effort, as Kurt Warner was stripped of the football. The fumble prevented the deep attempt to the Pitt Panthers legend, thus securing the Lombardi Trophy.
Like the key play to effectively end the championship, the Steelers defense must produce a fine effort to stop this extraordinary talent. Likewise, Ike Taylor hopes that his efforts yield results similar to the start of that evening than its ending.
With two superb players on opposing units, how can fans not salivate at the sight of both men lined against each other?
You can't mentally prepare for Steelers vs. Cardinals without accounting for Joey "Abs" Porter.
For his tongue and all of his tantrums, Joey Porter endeared himself to Steelers fans more for his play than his attitude, though it was the latter that put him on the NFL map.
Nobody can refute that many of Porter's soundbites during his Pittsburgh career were golden. Who can forget the Jeremy Stevens sermon? It elevated Porter from great linebacker to bona fide NFL character in the eyes of non-Pittsburgh markets.
Let's face it: two things sell in the NFL. Winning. And characters. In the Steel City, the linebacker did both.
A fan favorite, Porter's departure from the 'Burgh with the introduction of Mike Tomlin has head coach was received with a wide range of emotions from faithful fans.
Fast-forwarding to 2011, Porter is likely not the same great linebacker that left the Steel City. With only one sack this season, his impact has not been as tremendous with the Cardinals as it was with the Steelers or Dolphins.
Despite the statistical decline, few would argue that Joey will be chomping at the bit for an opportunity to make a mark against the team with which he won a Super Bowl. And, as Steelers fans know well, any big plays from the big man (or is it mouth?) will likely include mounds of self-promotion. Or, do we still call it exuberance and intensity?
In games against Pittsburgh, Porter's teams have yet to win, though the linebacker has accumulated both a sack and interception in two games against his former mates.
Earlier in the week, Ben Roethlisberger expressed interest in utilizing a no huddle offense with more frequency.
For many fans, the no huddle translates to "No Arians," whose playcalling came under scrutiny in the second half against the Jaguars.
After failing to complete more than a single pass or score a mere point in that half, Big Ben noted that the no huddle strategy offers a nice change of pace. With the unit struggling mightily in the final minutes of Week 6, perhaps the adjustment would have prevented a tense finale.
Roethlisberger noted that the unit was reacting to the opponents tendencies late in the game....unsuccessfully!
By utilizing the no huddle, the offense can simply run plays. Often, it seems teams are actually too bogged down in the details of their opponents, needing to simply play the game of football.
Personally, I embrace the change!
Designed to keep defenses on the field while changing the pace of the game (and potentially giving offenses a jolt of energy), the strategy normally uses runs and high percentage passes to keep the clock moving and the opposing defense from resetting.
While Roethlisberger has been willing to attempt deep and intermediate completions in the no huddle, will an overuse of the concept limit downfield opportunities between the mobile quarterback and his speedster receivers?
Or, is this just the migraine that the Steelers needed to give opposing defenses, utilizing their talent at a fast pace and not allowing defenses to reset.
Dating back to a comeback victory against the Baltimore Ravens on a Monday Night in 2008 (the Steelers won 23-20 despite trailing 13-3 at halftime), Big Ben and the offense have seen no-huddle work to their benefit more often than against them.
Will an increase help to work out the inconsistencies that have plagued the offense so far in 2011?
Beanie Wells has averaged 4.8 yards per carry, gained nearly 400 yards, and scored six touchdowns in four games this season. One away from his career high in trips to the end zone, Wells hopes to have another productive outing against a Steelers defense that has executed both masterfully and poorly in stretches of the season.
Against another team that prides itself on being physical, Wells torched the Giants for 138 yards and three touchdowns.
While containing Arizona's pass catchers is challenging enough, defending a Cardinals' offense that is able to either run or pass is asking for trouble. Like any week, stopping the run is a must.
Sadly, the great play of Beanie Wells has been an afterthought in most previews leading up to the game.
The Steelers defense has stifled Chris Johnson and Marshawn Lynch, but they've struggled against the likes of Ray Rice, Maurice Jones-Drew and Arian Foster.
Against a team that they should beat, the Steelers defense can ill-afford to allow Beanie Wells to have similar success. Tackling and gap control are a must this weekend. Can Chris Hoke and the defense step up and continue to improve?
Taking on the quietly successful Cardinals rushing attack, we'll find out.
The Cardinals are hopeful that Todd Heap can play after missing games due to injury. While playing with Baltimore, Heap found both frustration and success against the Steelers.
Who can forget him stumbling back to the line, injured before Joey Porter flattened him, inciting debate?
Likewise, he also caught four touchdowns and made some big plays against Pittsburgh. Todd Heap has always been a playmaking tight end, but he's also alma mater from the league's black and blue rivalry. and he expects a physical game this weekend.
Aside from their opener in Baltimore, the Steelers have done a fine job of containing opposing tight ends this season. If healthy, Heap is capable enough to take advantage of intermediate soft spots in the Steelers scheme or use his physical gifts to snag the football deep downfield.
Having Todd available will give struggling Kevin Kolb another target to utilize against a Steelers' defense that promises to play him with ferocity. This particular target happens to be familiar with the Steelers defense, anticipating the physical challenged Pittsburgh plans to bring to the desert.
When he intercepted Philip Rivers in the preseason, Cardinals fans saw a flash of the brilliance they hoped for with their fifth overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. Patrick Peterson scored a touchdown on the play, but that was merely exhibition.
When he returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown for the winning touchdown on opening weekend of the regular season, Cardinals fans realized they had an extraordinary athlete.
Like Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh, Peterson can help the Cardinals win on special teams and with his regular unit. While Brown has continued to develop into his role as a clutch receiver on the Steelers offense, it is likely that Peterson will cover a far graver threat to the Cardinals goals.
His assignment this weekend will likely come against Mike Wallace, pitting both teams' fastest players against each other.
In Week 3, Peterson snagged his first career interception, illustrating his progress as an NFL corner. As the young cornerback continues to develop, Mike Wallace hopes to provide him a lesson in regression!
With the NFL receiving record still in sight for the Steelers speedster, can the star receiver take advantage of youth? Or, will Peterson's raw talent limit opportunities downfield?
For fans upset with the rate at which Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked, hope can be extracted from this weekend's opponent.
While Big Ben has hit the turf 18 times this season, Kevin Kolb has been sacked 16 times in one fewer game. Mathematically, pressure has gotten to Arizona's quarterback with slightly more frequency than the rate at which Roethlisberger has been taken down.
With the secondary pitted against talented pass catchers, it is imperative that the defense gets pressure on the enigmatic Kolb, whose signing demonstrated confidence in his ability...but whose performance has been lackluster.
Like Ben in the season's early weeks, inability to depend on protection has surely affected the Cardinals passing game, and Kolb has thrown only five touchdowns against six interceptions.
With such a limited statistical history, it is difficult to truly discern just how capable the signal caller is out in Arizona. Numbers don't lie, and no passer is great on his back. Against an offensive line that has struggled, the Steelers defense should be able to harass the unproven Kolb.
Another key element of the contest is turnovers. Getting pressure will increase the unit's chances of finally making the "big play" that has avoided them in the season's first six weeks.
If the defense cannot take away the football, the risk of an upset increases exponentially, especially if the offense continues its trend of silly mistakes at inopportune moments.
While it is clear that Ben Roethlisberger and the offense needs to be more careful with the football, it is also the defense's JOB to make sure that opposing units don't have that luxury. Until they are able to force turnovers, the 2011 Steelers defense will not be considered among the league's true elites.
Uh oh. The "Whiz" is getting ready for the Steelers again! Prepping, putting together a game plan, conjuring...
Excuse me if I'm not shaken...
Annoying to some fans, the Ken Whisenhunt angle will still be an obvious selling point for this contest between the Steelers and Cardinals.
The "Whiz" was ultimately rewarded with the coaching job in Arizona, and Mike Tomlin has filled in for the legendary Bill Cowher nicely (is that an understatement?).
Despite time and mutual success, the matches are billed as the effort by Arizona's coaching staff to "get even" with Pittsburgh. Between Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, the need for vengeance has surely passed.
In any case, the more pressing issue is the focus of this slide: familiarity breeds contempt.
It also breeds wins. At what rate success is bred from this familiarity can be debated, but the idea that wins are born from it cannot be argued!
From John Gruden dismantling the Raiders to Whisenhunt's narrow loss despite being heavy underdogs in Super Bowl XLIII, coaches facing off against their old squads have been advertised as wildly successful in the modern NFL.
While the success stories dominate the headlines, it doesn't mean that a former coach or staffer is always going to have success against his old employer. Years have passed since Whisenhunt was in town, and surely the offense has developed and changed since his exposure to it as offensive coordinator.
After two previous matches, the Steelers now have film on Whisenhunt's approach to defeating them, a tool that hadn't been in their arsenal during a 2007 loss. Knowing what worked and failed against his former mentor, couldn't one equally expect Ben Roethlisberger to have intelligence on his old coordinator that can be used to Pittsburgh's advantage? Of course!
In other words, it works both ways. Now, the sides should be even.
While the impact of their time together may have been felt in previous matchups, Sunday's Cardinals vs. Steelers contest will be the result of two teams clashing, and the winner will be the squad that executes more consistently against the opposing roster.
The same elements that factor into winning and losing apply to this contest: turnovers, time of possession, yardage, first downs, third down percentage, red zone efficiency, quarterback rating, etc.
Note that "familiarity of opposing coaching staff" did not make the list!
Whereas the impact of Whisenhunt's knowledge of his former club should have little impact on Pittsburgh, the result of this game could have major ramifications. While winning and losing won't be decided by coaches alone, the final result could reveal where the Steelers truly stand.
With defeat, Pittsburgh's chances will seem slim for a repeat success of recent seasons. With a victory, the sky could be the limit heading into games against arguably the AFC's two top ranked teams.
Many fans have pointed to his game as a chance to pamper the Steelers in the standings before games against the Patriots and Ravens. Many of those same optimists highlight the team's second half schedule, noting the weakness of Steelers' opponents.
It seems as though many view this game as padding, almost as if they are psychologically conceding difficult contests against New England and Baltimore and formulating playoff odds solely on a winning stretch of final games.
The flaw with viewing the Arizona game as a swing game with this perspective in mind is two-fold:
2) Even with a winning streak from mid-November through the end of the season, the Steelers need to beat the Patriots or Ravens! Without being foolish enough to look ahead, winning is far less enjoyable without credibility. The Steelers last shots to obtain a real credential in the 2011 regular season came in the following two weeks.
Despite the flawed logic of many fans, the Arizona game is important. After all, the Cardinals will be enough of a challenge, but they're not in the league of the Pats or Ravens. With a win on the road in Arizona, the 5-2 record would absolutely insulate the team, preventing a losing record if the worst possible scenario were to occur during the homestand: consecutive losses!
Yet, this should not be the goal of winning. By earning a 5-2 record in the standings, the Steelers will give themselves a shot at a 6-2 first half to 2011. And, by all accounts, the first part of the schedule was (and is) considered the far more challenging stretch.
A win in Arizona would keep Pittsburgh in the race for the AFC North title, as well as home field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
By continuing to win this week and beyond, many fans have failed to mention that the Steelers could put themselves in a surprising position as the top team in the AFC.
With that goal in mind, the Cardinals game is a huge swing game, and much more lofty standards and goals than merely "coasting to the finish" should be the hope of all Steelers fans as the team looks to win in Arizona!