- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Washington Redskins hosted both Super Bowl participants this season, beating the Arizona Cardinals 24-17 in Week 3 and losing 23-6 to Pittsburgh in Week 9. Running back Clinton Portis, defensive end Andre Carter, secondary coach Jerry Gray and special teams coach Danny Smith broke down the matchup.

WHEN THE STEELERS RUN

Rankings: Pittsburgh ranked 23rd (105.6 yards a game), and Arizona’s defense ranked 16th (110.2).

Key players: Pittsburgh - Running back Willie Parker gained 791 yards in the regular season, and Mewelde Moore had 588. Arizona - Linebacker Karlos Dansby posted a team-high 119 tackles and safeties Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson combined for 164 tackles.

Clinton Portis: “Arizona’s linebackers are fast, and their secondary flies to the ball. Your attitude has to be ‘Whatever you do, do it full speed to get there.’ If you try to run sideways, their defensive line will disrupt that, and they will add a safety to the box and Adrian Wilson is like an extra linebacker. Willie Parker is a hard runner, and it’s going to take a lot out of him to run hard and get 1- and 2-yard gains. Eventually he might break one.”

Edge: Arizona. Pittsburgh prides itself on playing physical in the run game, and the Steelers’ offense is balanced. But Arizona’s athletic front seven, which also includes defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, has been relatively consistent against the run, and the Cardinals could use their quickness to contain Parker.

WHEN THE STEELERS PASS

Rankings: Pittsburgh ranked 17th (206.3), and Arizona’s defense ranked 22nd (221.2).

Key players: Pittsburgh - In the regular season, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw 17 touchdowns and 15 interceptions but was sacked 46 times. Receiver Hines Ward caught 81 passes for 1,043 yards but could be limited with a knee injury. Arizona - Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie intercepted four passes, and six players had at least four sacks, led by Bertrand Berry’s five.

Jerry Gray: “Our biggest concern was not letting Ben extend the play. I’ve seen ESPN saying that he holds onto the football, but that’s Ben’s MO because he’s a bigger guy and can throw one guy off of him. And then, all of a sudden, a receiver gets away from the defensive back and it ends up being a touchdown.”

Andre Carter: “When Roethlisberger is hot, he’s really hot. And [when] he’s not, he’s really not. We tried to flush him to his left because that’s when he’s more inconsistent. Their receivers are good at continuing their routes to give him more time. Ben’s unorthodox sometimes. He’ll be in the pocket a little too long, because if his No. 1 guy isn’t there, he’ll keep looking for him or the No. 2 and No. 3 guys.”

Edge: Pittsburgh. Ward is a little gimpy and the Cardinals’ secondary has been around the football the entire postseason, but Roethlisberger will be the difference in this category. He’ll wiggle away from the rush to keep plays and drives alive.

WHEN THE CARDINALS RUN

Rankings: Arizona ranked last (73.6), and Pittsburgh’s defense ranked second (80.2).

Key players: Arizona - Running back Edgerrin James has reclaimed his starting position but gained only 514 regular-season yards. Rookie Tim Hightower led the team in attempts with 143 with 10 touchdowns. Pittsburgh - Nose tackle Casey Hampton is a load up front. Linebacker James Farrior and safety Ryan Clark had 133 and 87 tackles, respectively.

Andre Carter: “The thing about their running game is, at the beginning of the season it was up and down, but Edgerrin James is still a physical back and a downhill runner. The one thing about him is, he’s consistent; when you try to gang-tackle him, he’ll find a way to gain an additional 1 or 2 yards. Hightower is more of an outside back, and he’ll try to stretch the corner and then turn it back inside. They seem to have a great plan rolling those two backs in and out of the game.”

Clinton Portis: “The Steelers’ defense go into the game with the idea of ‘You’re really not going to do anything against us.’ Casey Hampton sits in the middle and that’s going to occupy two of your linemen. And they have two good defensive ends, their linebackers flow and I think Ryan Clark is the X-factor of their defense.”

Edge: Pittsburgh. This one is a no-brainer. The Cardinals are the first team to reach the Super Bowl despite finishing last in rushing. The key for Arizona is getting a few yards on first and second downs to stay away from third-down passing situations.

WHEN THE CARDINALS PASS

Rankings: Arizona ranked second (292.1), and Pittsburgh ranked first (156.9).

Key players: Arizona - Quarterback Kurt Warner threw for 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, finishing with 4,583 yards. Receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston all eclipsed 1,000 yards and combined for 26 touchdowns. Pittsburgh - Safety Troy Polamalu had seven interceptions. Led by James Harrison’s 16 and LaMarr Woodley’s 11.5, the Steelers had 51 sacks.

Andre Carter: “[Containing] Fitzgerald was the goal because everybody knows how elusive and powerful he is. … We did a lot of four-man rushes in the first half of our game against them. In the second half, we blitzed a lot more because they started max-protecting more than we thought. We wanted to get Kurt off his spot and make him throw on the run because everybody knows when he does that, he makes mistakes and forces some things.”

Clinton Portis: “Arizona has been really explosive this postseason. Pittsburgh’s defense is excellent and they’ll bring a lot of pressure, but seeing Kurt Warner, Fitzgerald and Boldin execute - and their running backs are picking up the blitzes and Warner is throwing the hot routes, I think Arizona is going to pull this off and win by more than 10.”

Edge: Arizona. The Steelers may rank first against the pass, but they haven’t faced anything like Arizona’s passing game in its current form. Watch for the Cardinals to try to match up Fitzgerald with the Steelers’ linebackers (more plodding than speedy) on shallow crossing routes.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Rankings: Kickoff coverage - Arizona ranked 30th, and Pittsburgh ranked first. Punt returns - Arizona ranked 27th, and Pittsburgh ranked tied for 31st. Averaging starting position - Arizona ranked 19th, and Pittsburgh ranked 26th.

Key players: Arizona - Kicker Neil Rackers was 25-for-28 on field goals, punter Ben Graham was picked up Dec. 1 and the Cardinals got little from punt returner Steve Breaston (7.2 average) and kick returner J.J. Arrington (one touchdown). Pittsburgh - Kicker Jeff Reed went 27-for-31 on field goals, punter Mitch Berger is in his second stint with the team this year and neither kick returner Gary Russell nor punt returner Santonio Holmes produced a touchdown.

Danny Smith: “Neither one were rated very high except in one area - Pittsburgh was No. 1 in kickoff coverage. What they do is a lot of that bloop kicking, and it’s a matter of how Arizona handles it. If they let the ball hit and haven’t moved their guys up, then it’s effective. The problem they’re both going to have, and it’s what I think makes it a higher scoring game, is both punters have struggled. Neither one can flip the field for their team. Both are on their second punter, and how many Super Bowl teams have done that? They both got pretty good kickers, so that’s a pretty even matchup. Both of those guys can get the touchback. I would give Pittsburgh the slight edge overall, only because of their kickoff coverage and because of Santonio on punt returns.”

Edge: Pittsburgh. The statistics are pretty gory for both teams, so anything in the return game will be a bonus. Watch for penalties on the returning team that will impact field position.

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