Edgerrin James plunges in for a touchdown when the Cardinals and the Steelers last met in Arizona during the 2007 season.
TAMPA, Fla. – It's football at its most basic – any sport, really – and the Cardinals were good at it this season.
The Cards set a franchise record for points in a season with 427, an average of almost 27 a game. In the playoffs, the average has jumped to 31 per game. It's an electric figure. But the Steelers, whom the Cards play Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII, can counter it with stats of their own – like a defense that gave up an average of only 13.9 points a game, and a pass rush that produced 51 sacks.
In a theme so obvious yet so true, the winner of the NFL's biggest game will likely be the one that can impose its team's strength on the other.
"We haven't faced a defense like Pittsburgh," Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "This is a different monster here. It's like when you face a bully in
the school yard. You've got to confront them. You can't run from them or they're gonna take your lunch money all year."
The Cardinals have had their successes against strong defenses. They scored 29 points (in a loss) against the Giants. They cracked the Cowboys, when the Cowboys were still defending well, for 30 points. And in the NFC Championship, the Cards piled 32 points on the Eagles, who had the third-ranked defense in the NFL.
But none of those teams compare to the Steelers, Cardinals right tackle Levi Brown said. Yes, the Cards faced a couple of 3-4 defensive alignments this season, the latest being in New England against the Patriots (and that didn't go well for the Arizona offense).
But no defense the Cards have seen can replicate the speed and pressure the Steelers possess with their lineup, along with the oft-changing schemes of long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
"When you hear a defense is ranked number one, you get in your head (that) even when the play goes wrong, they are able to correct those mistakes," Brown said. "And they don't make many mistakes. So it does factor in."
Linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have become pass rushing stars, and safety Troy Polomalu is perhaps the league's best with his ability to both hit and make game-changing interceptions – like his pick for a touchdown in the AFC Championship game.
Yet it can be argued the Steelers haven't seen an offense like the Cardinals, either.
Pittsburgh did take on the Colts and the Chargers (twice) this season, the teams on their schedule that would come closest to measuring to the Cards' offense. But neither opponent had the quality of receivers that the Cards have. The Cards' resurgence in the running game in the postseason also puts them on par with the San Diego and Indianapolis running games this season.
Ultimately, the plan seems to rest on Kurt Warner. If the Cardinals can protect him enough, the veteran quarterback will have time to find one of his many outlets.
"The most dangerous guy is the guy with the ball," Woodley said. "It definitely starts in the hands of Kurt Warner, and as a defense we have to go out there and put pressure on him. If we go out there and put pressure on him he can't get the ball to those guys."
The Eagles made Warner's life miserable when the Cards played in Philadelphia on Thanksgiving. In the rematch, Warner had time and shredded the Eagles for four touchdowns.
Now, the Cardinals have had two weeks to prepare for what they think might be coming.
"They're going to throw things at us we've never seen before," Warner said.
Last season – in a game both sides insist will have no bearing on the Super Bowl – the Cardinals managed just two touchdowns offensively (winning 21-14 in large part because of a punt return for a touchdown by Steve Breaston). But in that game, Warner split time with Matt Leinart at quarterback, and Anquan Boldin didn't play because of a hip injury. Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had 10 catches for 120 yards.
Fitzgerald is currently playing at as high a level as any receiver in NFL postseason history. And Boldin is 100 percent healthy.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is also familiar with LeBeau, having battled him many times in Pittsburgh when Whisenhunt was offensive coordinator. That, Whisenhunt has said many times, will be a challenge for the Arizona coaches.
Ultimately, the Cardinals feel like they can find ways to dent the new Steel Curtain.
Said running back Edgerrin James, "We're just focusing on us."
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 1/29/09.