The Cardinals and Steelers don't play often – once every four years, give or take a Super Bowl. It used to be that many wanted to call the Cards Pittsburgh West. Understandable. Sunday will be the first time these teams have faced each other without an ex-Steeler as Cardinals head coach since 2003. You remember that game right? In Pittsburgh, Jeff Blake as quarterback, Cards lost, 28-15, in a game that wasn't really that close.
By the time they met again, former Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was the Cardinals' coach in 2007, and the Cards had a franchise-changing 21-14 win at State Farm Stadium over the Steelers. That was a game that showed that Whisenhunt's tenure would be different. The two teams met in the Super Bowl the next season, and, no, let's not bother to delve into that.
Whisenhunt had another matchup in Arizona in 2011 (a 32-20 Steelers win) before former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians got the game in Pittsburgh in 2015. The Cardinals were the better team at the time, given Ben Roethlisberger's injury, and made Michael Vick look old and terrible – but then Landry Jones came in and shocked the Cards at the end.
The Steelers are missing Roethlisberger again this time around. Like Jones, it'll be a third-stringer at QB in Devlin "Duck" Hodges. There are former Steelers coaches on the Cardinals' coaching staff, but it's offensive line coach Sean Kugler and running backs coach James Saxon and passing game coordinator Tom Clements and linebackers coach Bill David. Not the head coach. No, the current head coach probably could care less about the particular opponent this week, not when his team was mauled last week and he's trying to make it right. The Steelers are winning – six of their last seven to get back into the playoff hunt – but they are not a juggernaut. This is a game the Cardinals can (need to?) win. But they have to play much better than last week.
-- There were too many sacks and too much pressure on Kyler Murray last week. The rookie has to be willing to stand in there a little more, and also has to see the end of the play coming (he fell back into the trap of 10- and 12-yard sacks last week, something that he looked like he had gotten past after early-season pitfalls in that regard.) But there is also pressure on tackles D.J. Humphries and Justin Murray to battle T.J. Watt – who is having a great season – and Bud Dupree – who is coming on hot.
-- I'm curious to see how the outside linebacker snap distribution goes beyond Chandler Jones. Cassius Marsh outsnapped Terrell Suggs for the first time last week. And how much might they use Haason Reddick in that role after essentially one week of practice out there?
-- Larry Fitzgerald knows this game against the Steelers is a "brand-new challenge," especially for the rookies and younger players on the team.
"There are going to be a lot of Pittsburgh Steelers fans there," Fitzgerald said. "There are going to be things you're not used to having to deal with as a home game. This is going to be a unique situation."
-- In theory, the Steelers, with all their injuries and a third-string quarterback, should not be able to attack the Cardinals' struggling pass defense as much as recent opponents. But in his efforts to aid that plan, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph adjusted some of the pre-snap work in the secondary to hopefully help the communication – which by all accounts has not been good.
"I won't say dummied the calls down (but) he gave us the ability to play faster," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "Gave us one call, not too many checks, and allow us to play football."
Peterson said the previous way of doing things "wasn't complicated at all, just a lot of checks, a lot of moving parts, a lot of communication that was keyed upon. And if you don't get certain communication, things can break down."
-- This is the My Cause, My Cleats game for the players, in which they are allowed to paint their game shoes in whatever style they want to represent whatever cause they are into.
-- It's quieted down because, frankly, there isn't as much to say anymore. But that doesn't mean how the Cardinals use David Johnson (and Kenyan Drake, and Chase Edmonds) isn't something to watch. Obviously if anything changes significantly with Johnson, it's a story. But GM Steve Keim made it clear he is letting Kliff Kingsbury handle that how he sees fit.
-- Fitzgerald played in college at the University of Pittsburgh, and at the time the Panthers and the Steelers shared a practice facility. Fitzgerald said the college players could interact when they wanted with the pros, and he took advantage.
"Every time I got an opportunity, I'd go over to the lunch room, get a chance to talk to Hines (Ward) and Plaxico (Burress) and Tommy Maddox and Joey Porter and Troy Polomalu. Name a guy, I was always trying to soak up the knowledge. It had a lot to do when I was a ballboy with the Vikings and I was the same way with those guys. They treated me really well."
Fitzgerald said when he was a freshman, once the weather started to turn cold, Ward and Burress, who shared a suite at Heinz Field, allowed Fitz's family to sit in the suite for Saturday home games. "Those guys always were so kind to me."
-- The story is fascinating through the prism of Fitzgerald's career, since it was Ward whom then-Cardinals coach Bruce Arians held up to Fitz as the example of why Fitz should move inside as a receiver as he got later in his career. (A move Fitzgerald did not like – at all – at the time, but over time learned to appreciate.)
We're a long way from Super Bowl 43. See you Sunday.