NFL Preview - Pittsburgh (4-2) at Arizona (1-4)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - After losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, the Arizona Cardinals were viewed as a team on the rise. A team in distress may now be a more accurate description.
As for Pittsburgh, the franchise continues to set its sights on a third NFL championship game appearance in four seasons.
Arizona hopes to avoid a fifth straight defeat this Sunday as it takes on visiting Pittsburgh for the first time since its narrow loss to the Steelers in Tampa at the end of the 2008 season.
Led by Kurt Warner and the dangerous wide receiver tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals went 9-7 during their Super Bowl season of 2008, the franchise's first winning record since 1998. Arizona posted a 10-6 mark the following year to win a second straight NFC West title, but lost in the playoffs to the Saints in the Divisional Round, and the retirement of Warner as well as a trade of Boldin contributed to the club going just 5-11 in 2010.
Hoping to turn things around, the Cardinals opened this season with a home win over the Carolina Panthers, but have since lost games to the Washington, Seattle, the New York Giants and Minnesota before last weekend's bye.
The first three losses of this skid came by a combined eight points, but Arizona was blown out by a 34-10 margin at Minnesota two weekends ago, falling behind by four touchdowns in the first quarter. Three of the Vikings' first- quarter scoring drives began inside the Cardinals 25-yard line.
Arizona has now lost 15 of its past 21 games since the start of 2010, but head coach Ken Whisenhunt is hoping his team was able to clear their collective minds during the break.
"You should feel a little bit healthier, a little bit more refreshed and maybe a new perspective on where we are," said Whisenhunt, who spent six seasons on Pittsburgh's coaching staff from 2001-06 -- including the final three as offensive coordinator -- before taking over the Cardinals.
With 11 games still to go, Fitzgerald is hoping his team can still make a run despite the large gap between the Cardinals and first-place San Francisco 49ers (5-1) in the NFC West.
"Getting away and watching other teams, watching some other games, just seeing the success other teams are having just made me realize anything is possible," Fitzgerald said. "We just have to get going in the other direction."
Pittsburgh takes aim at a third straight victory and has won four of six to begin the season, which followed a Super Bowl loss to Green Bay back in February. The Steelers are currently tied with Cincinnati for second in the AFC North, just back of the 4-1 Baltimore Ravens.
After a convincing 38-17 win over Tennessee on Oct. 9, the Steelers jumped out to a quick lead this past Sunday versus the visiting Jacksonville Jaguars before going a bit flat in the second half. Despite getting outscored 10-0 after halftime, Pittsburgh held on for a 17-13 victory.
"Great to get the win," Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said. "Not the type of finish we're looking for, but obviously we'll take it. We acknowledge we didn't play the type of football we wanted to in the second half."
The Ben Roethlisberger-led offense racked up 315 yards in the first half, including 113 on the ground from running back Rashard Mendenhall, but was outgained 141-55 after intermission.
The Steelers also saw safety Troy Polamalu leave the game in the fourth quarter after he hit his head on the leg of Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew, but Tomlin said on Tuesday that his star defender passed a concussion test and was cleared to practice this week.
"Troy Polamalu appears to be good to go," Tomlin said. "He did a concussion test, and he passed it. He met with our neurosurgeons, and they are very comfortable with where he is."
Pittsburgh could also have guard Chris Kemoeatu (knee), offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert (shoulder) and linebacker Jason Worilds (quadriceps) back this weekend, but will likely remain without defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith.
The Steelers hold a 31-23-3 overall advantage on the Cardinals in regular- season play, but Arizona won the last such meeting between the teams via a 21-14 decision at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2007. Pittsburgh did top the Cardinals at Heinz Field by a 28-15 score in 2003, but is just 1-3 lifetime in Arizona, with the lone victory a 26-20 overtime verdict at Sun Devil Stadium on Nov. 30, 1997.
As previously noted, the most memorable and meaningful matchup among the two clubs occurred in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa on Feb. 1, 2009, with the Steelers rallying for a 27-23 win on a Roethlisberger touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left.
Whisenhunt, who spent six seasons with the Steelers as an assistant and served as that team's offensive coordinator from 2004-06, is 1-1 against his former employers as the Cardinals' head coach. Tomlin is 1-1 versus both Arizona and Whisenhunt, with the win coming in the aforementioned Super Bowl.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Pittsburgh ranks 10th in the league with an average of 373.0 yards per game and has gone over the 350-yard mark in consecutive weeks. The Steelers ended with 370 against the Jaguars, with its 185 rushing yards giving the team back-to- back games with at least 160 yards on the ground for the first time since late November of last year. After being active but not getting a carry in a Week 5 win over the Titans, Mendenhall (319 rushing yards, 3 TD) roared back with 146 yards on 23 carries with a touchdown against Jacksonville. The game marked the first time in his career he surpassed 100 yards rushing in the first half. Roethlisberger (1576 passing yards, 9 TD, 6 INT) had a quiet game, managing 200 yards passing while completing just 12 of his 23 pass attempts, but that didn't stop wide receiver Mike Wallace (33 receptions, 4 TD) from having another big day. He made just two catches but totaled 76 yards, pulling in the 20th reception of his career for at least 40 yards. Twelve of those have resulted in touchdowns. Hines Ward (23 receptions, 2 TD) added three catches for 47 yards, leaving him 61 yards shy of becoming the 19th player to reach 12,000 in his career, while tight end Heath Miller (19 receptions, 1 TD) led all Pittsburgh receivers with four catches against the Jaguars.
Arizona's 20th-ranked run defense (118.8 ypg) was torched by Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson two weeks ago to the tune of 122 yards and three touchdowns. The unit also took a hit when safety Kerry Rhodes (24 tackles, 2 sacks) suffered a broken foot that is expected to sideline him for a few weeks. That led to Cardinals' signing veteran safety Sean Considine. Cornerback A.J. Jefferson (28 tackles) saw plenty of action against the Vikings, making a team-leading eight tackles, while inside linebacker Daryl Washington (23 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) came away with the Cardinals' only sack as part of his five-tackle day. Defensive end Calais Campbell (29 tackles, 2.5 sacks) has stepped up his game over the past three weeks, recording 21 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks, four tackles for a loss and a forced fumble in that span. Linebacker Joey Porter (14 tackles, 1 sack), who spent the first eight years of his career with Pittsburgh starting in 1999, had only one tackle in the Minnesota game and remains two sacks shy of becoming the 26th player in league history to reach 100 in his career. He is aided on the right side by Paris Lenon (30 tackles). Rashad Johnson will likely start in Rhodes' place beside Adrian Wilson (20 tackles, 1 INT).
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Arizona traded for quarterback Kevin Kolb in the offseason to bring long-term stability to the position, something the club lacked last year after Warner's retirement, but the offense has struggled as Kolb goes through his growing pains. The Cardinals rank 18th in total yards per game at 340.2 and is scoring at just a 19.2 points-per-game clip. Kolb (1281 passing yards, 5 TD, 6 INT) completed half of his 42 passes versus the Vikings for 232 yards and was picked off twice, while also being sacked four times without a touchdown throw. Arizona's lone trip to the end zone came on Beanie Wells' two-yard run in the third quarter. Wells (381 rushing yards, 6 TD) posted his fourth straight game with a rushing touchdown, tied for the second-longest streak in club history. Ottis Anderson was the last Cards player to do so, scoring in five consecutive games from 1983-84. Kolb has one of the best options in the game in Fitzgerald (27 receptions, 2 TD), but it was fellow wideout Early Doucet (21 receptions, 1 TD) who was targeted 16 times against Minnesota. He made eight catches for 92 yards, while Fitzgerald had four receptions for 66 yards. With Todd Heap (13 receptions) missing the game with a hamstring injury, tight end Jeff King (10 receptions, 2 TD) made five catches for 35 yards.
Kolb figures to be in for another long day on Sunday, as he goes against the league's top-ranked defense. Pittsburgh is allowing only 270.5 yards per game, including an NFL-best 157.7 yards through the air. The Steelers are also fourth overall with an average of 17 points allowed per game. Pittsburgh held the Jaguars to 76 net passing yards, marking the fourth time in the past five games it has held its opponent under 150 passing yards. That 76-yard total was also the team's fourth-lowest output under Tomlin. Pittsburgh brought the pressure in a big way as well, notching five sacks versus the Jaguars, including four in the first half for the first time since Nov. 3, 2008. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley (27 tackles, 5 sacks) and defensive end Brett Keisel (15 tackles, 2 sacks) both had two sacks, with Keisel matching a career high. Woodley, meanwhile, has multiple sacks in two straight games, and inside linebacker James Farrior (42 tackles, 2 sacks) also had a quarterback takedown in addition to a club-leading 11 tackles. Safety Ryan Clark (38 tackles) ended with 10 stops, while Woodley had eight and Polamalu (40 tackles, 1 sack) five before exiting. Woodley has grabbed Pittsburgh's only interception this year.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Cardinals fell behind big two weeks ago and may have trouble staying out of a big hole again on Sunday. Pittsburgh has scored on its first three drives in two straight games and has yielded three points or less during the first quarter in four of its last five contests.
If Arizona can keep pace, Wells should get a big workload. He has rushed for 216 yards and five touchdowns in the second half this season, compared to 165 yards and one score before halftime. Wells will be key to the Cardinals grinding things out late, as 13 of his 18 rushing first downs have also come in the second half.
Having Polamalu will be key for the Steelers as they try to lock down on Fitzgerald. The Cardinals' Pro Bowl receiver had a pair of touchdowns in the Super Bowl meeting and made 10 grabs for 120 yards in his only regular-season game versus Pittsburgh.
This appears to be a heavy mismatch on paper, and that should hold true on the field even with the Cardinals the fresher of the two clubs. Arizona's offense has had trouble finding a groove as Kolb goes through his first long-term action as a starter, and the Cardinals don't have enough weapons outside of Fitzgerald to keep Pittsburgh's hungry defense in check. The Steelers, meanwhile, have featured a balanced offense all season that should give the Cardinals trouble. Expect the Black and Gold to claim this Super Bowl rematch with ease.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 31, Cardinals 13
10/21 08:37:23 ET