The Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Arizona Cardinals on the surface appears to be a Super Bowl of teams on opposite ends of the spectrum. For the most part, that is a fair assessment. The Steelers are the tough, raw-back-and-bloody-bones defensive team. The Cardinals are high-flying, light-up-the-scoreboard team. The Steelers have a winning tradition and hardware to prove it. The Cardinals have no such tradition and a lot of hard knocks to prove it. Yet, for all the differences, when one looks closer, there are a few interesting similarities.
The Unlikely Heroes: Kurt Warner (Arizona) & Willie Parker (Pittsburgh)
Neither of these guys was thought of as a sure fire hit. In fact, neither were even drafted. Warner rose through the ranks of the Arena League and NFL Europe while Parker waited his turn behind the veteran backs already on the Steeler roster. Warner’s grocery bags to NFL/Super Bowl MVP story and record 414 yard game in Super Bowl XXXIV and Parker’s rise from an afterthought on his college team to the speedy back that ripped off a huge 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL (the longest in the game’s history) are the stuff legends are made from. It is these guys and their stories that make the game special and interesting to fan who doesn’t necessarily pull for either team. Both men are involved in their communities and both play with a lot of heart, determination and class.
The Favorite Targets: Hines Ward (Pittsburgh) & Larry Fitzgerald (Arizona)
Ward and Fitzgerald are very different kinds of receivers. Ward, a converted QB, is the smart, route savvy, hard-nosed possession target every quarterback dreams of having on the field. A guy who will work to get open and make things happen. Fitzgerald is the fast and agile jumper able to snag balls out of the thin air at the most opportune moments and can lower his head and fight for yards after catch when needed. They both work hard on and off the field. They are respected by teammates and opposing defenders. They want the ball when the game is on the line and they have proven that the big stage will not slow them down. Ward’s performance in Super Bowl XL earned him the MVP. Fitzgerald broke receiving records for the post-season this year with his seemingly endless repertoire of skills.
The Special Teamers: Jeff Reed (Pittsburgh) & Neil Rackers (Arizona)
Go ahead and laugh if you want to, but kickers matter in big games and either (or both) of these guys could be called upon to supply a difference. Between the two of them, they have missed just one extra point this season. Reed is 87% in his field goals this year and Rackers is accurate on 89% of his. Bottom line is can these guys make the kicks when the pressure is on? Weather should not be a factor unless it rains heavily and that would favor Reed who kicks footballs that are more like blocks of ice in the winter up on Pittsburgh. Rackers holds the distance measure (perfect this season between 40-49 yards) which is undoubtedly aided by the practically-unaffected-by-the-weather turf of Cardinals’ home stadium. It is a mostly even matchup between these two keys of the special teams.
The Fierce Defenders: James Harrison (Pittsburgh) & Karlos Dansby (Arizona)
When I see James Harrison and Karlos Dansby play one thing they share in common is the ability to find the football and create havoc in a backfield. Dansby is the draft star of the two being selected in second round of the 2004 draft while Harrison has clawed his way onto NFL rosters as an undrafted free agent. Both guys posted tackles in the triple-digits this year and are the keystones of the defense. Dansby’s bigger, Harrison is faster and arguable a “meaner” player though much of that has to do with the scheme. Both are players who set things up for other defenders on the field. Double-team one of them and a teammate comes through with a play. Defense isn’t at a premium in Arizona, but it has been much better in the playoff run. For the Steelers, defense is like air – can’t live without it.
These are just a few of the names and story lines that could have an impact on the outcome of Super Bowl XLIII. On Sunday, February 1, we’ll find out if one of them makes the headlines or if the game’s star (or goat) comes from a different direction.