- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2009

By the time the hype subsides and the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals finally tee it up around 6:15 p.m. on Feb. 1, the differences between the franchises will have been discussed ad nauseam.

So let’s get a head start.

The Steelers, making their seventh appearance in the big game, can become the first team to win six Super Bowl titles; the Cardinals will make their first appearance and can become the 18th franchise to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

In Pittsburgh, reaching this stage is expected; in Arizona, the club hurried to raise the 2008 NFC West banner in time for this year’s playoffs.

The Steelers lean on their defense; the Cardinals rely on their passing game.

The only similarities between the teams: Both quarterbacks have Super Bowl rings, and both coaches have two years of experience.

Here are 10 story lines to dissect for the next 12 days:

1. Total opposites

Pittsburgh will be playing in its seventh Super Bowl and already possesses five Lombardi Trophies. Arizona is making its first Super Bowl appearance and became the last NFC team to reach the conference title game, so this is certainly rare air.

But the way the two offenses move the ball couldn’t be more different, which makes for an interesting matchup.

The Steelers ranked 22nd on offense and 20th in scoring in the regular season. Their defense ranked first in yards and points allowed.

The Cardinals’ offense ranked fourth in yards, second in passing and tied for third in scoring, making up for a defense that ranked 28th in points allowed.

2. Jilted coaches

When Bill Cowher made the semi-surprising decision following the 2006 season to step down after 15 years, 149 regular-season wins and a Super Bowl title, Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and offensive line coach Russ Grimm interviewed for the job.

Neither, of course, was hired. Before the Steelers decided on Mike Tomlin, Whisenhunt jumped at the Arizona job and took Grimm with him as assistant head coach.

When the Steelers traveled to the desert in 2007 and lost to Arizona, Whisenhunt admitted the game meant a little bit more to him. Now the stakes are even higher. Obviously, Whisenhunt and Grimm can’t play the game, but their insight into Pittsburgh’s defense could prove beneficial.

The good thing for Cowher is CBS isn’t broadcasting the game so he won’t have to make a public prediction.

3. Hall of Fame QBs?

A few weeks ago, when the New York Giants were the NFC’s top seed and poised for another run to the Super Bowl, there were online whispers about Eli Manning’s Hall of Fame candidacy. The conclusion: Manning would reach Canton on the merits of his team’s achievements, not his personal numbers.

Enter Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger, this year’s Super Bowl quarterbacks. Both already own rings - the first such matchup since 1983, when Oakland and Jim Plunkett defeated Washington and Joe Theismann.

Does this year’s winner clinch a spot in the Hall? In Roethlisberger’s case, the answer is no because the Steelers are led by their running game and defense.

But absolutely for Warner. He will be only the second quarterback to start for two franchises in the Super Bowl. The fact that he led the Cardinals to the NFC title - the club’s first conference or NFL title in 60 years - strengthens his case. Plus, he has great numbers.

4. Game-changing safeties

Two players to watch are Arizona’s No. 24 (Adrian Wilson) and Pittsburgh’s No. 43 (Troy Polamalu). Both are safeties, and both will be all over the field.

Wilson, in his eighth year, is the longest-tenured member of the Cardinals. He played like a stud against Philadelphia, posting seven solo tackles, two sacks, one pass defensed and one forced fumble.

Polamalu is easy to spot because of the hair that flows down his shoulders. He clinched the Steelers’ win over Baltimore with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown with 4:24 remaining. He also had two additional passes defensed.

5. Leaping Larry

In his first postseason, all Larry Fitzgerald achieved is the best performance by a receiver in NFL playoff history. He tied a record with three 100-yard games and broke Jerry Rice’s 20-year-old mark for postseason receiving yards with 419.

The Steelers ranked first against the pass during the regular season, and they intercepted Joe Flacco three times Sunday night. As the Steelers will say throughout the next two weeks, Fitzgerald is going to get his catches; the key is limiting his yardage after the catch.

One bit of advice is not to lose track of him on crossing routes. Inexplicably, Carolina and Philadelphia left him unchecked on shallow routes that turned into big gains.

6. Blitz-burgh’s pass rush

No coach who made his name as an assistant is in the Hall of Fame. That must change when Dick LeBeau hands in his headset and remote control.

This is LeBeau’s 50th consecutive season in the NFL as a player, assistant coach or head coach, and this season he helped the Steelers’ defense finish first in seven major categories, including yards, passing yards and points.

The founder of the zone blitz, LeBeau undoubtedly will send pressure at Warner while knowing the veteran can be effective as long as he knows where the blitz is coming from.

The Steelers sacked the quarterback 58 times in 18 games this season.

7. Special return

Only Indianapolis was worse at returning punts during the regular season than Pittsburgh. The Steelers averaged a measly 6 yards an attempt, didn’t have a return longer than 35 yards and didn’t score a touchdown.

Everything changed in the postseason, even though the returner (Santonio Holmes) didn’t.

Average return in the playoffs: 19.6 yards.

Holmes scored on a 67-yard return against San Diego and posted a 25-yard return against Baltimore. The Cardinals ranked 30th in punt coverage during the regular season, and the offensively challenged Steelers can use all the short fields they can get.

8. Local ties

The Redskins aren’t playing in the big game - their drought is now 17 years - but several participants have local ties.

For Arizona, running back Tim Hightower (Episcopal High in Alexandria), defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (Paint Branch High in Burtonsville) and reserves Eric Green (Virginia Tech) and Elton Brown (Virginia) have area connections. Grimm was a longtime member of the Hogs and later a Redskins assistant coach, and Whisenhunt played tight end for the club for a short time.

For Pittsburgh, backup quarterback Byron Leftwich grew up in the District, and Tomlin is from Newport News, Va. Safety Ryan Clark played for the Redskins in 2004 and 2005 (but was allowed to leave in free agency in favor of, gulp, Adam Archuleta). And, linebacker James Farrior and tight end Heath Miller grew up in Virginia and played their collegiate football for the Cavaliers.

9. Surprise contributors

In nearly every Super Bowl, a role player makes a play that drives up his free agent value (Pittsburgh’s Antwaan Randle El three years ago) or scores him a book deal (the Giants’ David Tyree last year). The Cardinals and Steelers have several candidates.

Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was excellent in coverage for the Cardinals on Sunday, fellow rookie Hightower scored 13 touchdowns during the regular season and playoffs, and receiver Steve Breaston could find himself unaccounted for if Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin get quick starts.

Miller led the Steelers with 62 receiving yards against Baltimore, Clark is the perfect complement to Polamalu and linebacker LaMarr Woodley could take over the game with his pass rushing ability.

10. The boss

The jousting between the halftime performer and the NFL is a annual ritual. Bruce Springsteen wants to promote new material from a forthcoming album (the reason the league’s invitation was accepted), and the NFL wants classic hits (the reason the invitation was issued).

Usually, a compromise is forged.

One guess on a four-song set list: “No Surrender” (oldie), “Working On A Dream” (newbie), “Glory Days” (oldie) and “Born To Run.” Here’s hoping “Tumbling Dice” replaces “No Surrender.”

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