For some reason ever since I was a kid, even though I live in Chicago, I’ve been sort of a Steeler fan. Maybe it was that whole Chuck Noll era run of Super Bowls and the mystique of the Steel Curtain, which occurred just at the dawing of my pre-teen interest in the sport. Or maybe I identify with the whole “working class” flavor of the franchise, and the whole city of Pittsburgh.
I can’t lie, though. I’m a Bears fan first. Nor do I own a Terrible Towel. So I can be more objective than the die-hard Pittsburgh fans. Nevertheless I am a Steeler fan. So even though it pains me to say it, I think there’s gonna be a shocking upset this Sunday.
Here’s five reasons why:
1) Injury to Ben Rothlisberger — He’s been beat up all year, but took his most serious shot of the year in that last playoff game. His ribs are going to be sore, and even a Cards middlin’ sort of defense will still find a way to pressure him (see my Steeler O line note below). He’ll have to leave the pocket sometimes, even if they don’t manage to hit him alot. But Ben won’t perform as well as usual on rollouts (which is pretty well), because of those ribs. So Steelers will run more, and the Cards know it. [Note: the injury to Hines Ward will be almost as much of a factor… Tomlin’s not telling the whole truth about these guys’ health.]
2) Offensive lines — The Steelers’ line is average, at best. That’s part of the reason Big Ben got hurt. Also part of the reason their running game ain’t what it used to be with Jerome Bettis, despite having “Fast Willie” Parker (who’s also been hurt this year, might not be 100%). Meanwhile, the Cards’ O line is slightly above average. They protected the immobile Old Man Kurt all season, even against tough defenses like New England. And they made holes big enough for Old Man Edgerrin to have some big games down the stretch.
3) The Edge — Speaking of Edgerrin… he doesn’t have a ring, despite a stellar career. He’s got to be hungry for that. He had moved on by the time the Colts finally won it in ’07. And the year before that, when the Steelers beat his Colts in that fluky AFC championship game (where a late fumble and a missed Vanderjagt field goal were the difference-makers), Edge saw a game get away from the Colts that they should have won. He won’t let that happen twice, against the same team. Plus the Cards have become a running team in the playoffs: despite perception that they’re pass-happy, they’ve actually run the ball about a dozen times more than they’ve passed. Here’s a stat: James and Hightower have combined for an average of 111.7 yards and 28.7 carries for the club’s resurgent running game in the playoffs.
4) Fitzgerald — Actually the problem is the three-headed monster that is Fitz, Boldin, and the vastly underrated Steve Breaston. I think the smart Steelers will double-cover Fitzgerald constantly, but he’ll still make some plays… the Steeler cornerbacks are sloppy. Then they’ll do what they can with Boldin. But by concentrating on those two heavy hitters, now Breaston or James or some other receiver will be open, and Warner’s greatest strengths are his field vision and quick release. Even the superhuman Troy Polamalu can’t be in two places at once.
5) Whisenhunt — The Cardinal head coach was the offensive coordinator for the Steelers when they won their last Super Bowl. He knows Big Ben, knows his weaknesses. He also would have “coached” against Mike Tomlin and the vaunted Pittsburgh defense every week in practice, to some extent. He’s the ultimate inside man, and he’s also probably got a bit of a grudge, having been passed over to head the Steelers.
So there you go. My call for the final score: Cardinals 24, Steelers 17.
The swamis all say defense wins championships. I think this year, Warner will prove that every rule has its exceptions.