By BOB LABRIOLA
The following are some of the interesting matchups to watch when the Steelers face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII:
STEELERS NT CASEY HAMPTON VS. CARDINALS C LYLE SENDLEIN: During the regular season, the Cardinals were last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, and they were second-to-last in average yards per rush. But in the playoffs, they made a switch back to veteran Edgerrin James, and their running attack showed some life in their three NFC playoff wins. The Steelers have to believe they can stop the Cardinals running attack with only seven guys in the box, but for that to happen, Hampton cannot allow Sendlein to handle him one-on-one. The Steelers always seek to render the opposing offense one-dimensional, and in the case of the Cardinals, stuffing the running game will allow the defense to utilize all of the weapons in its arsenal to get pressure on Kurt Warner without compromising itself in the secondary.
STEELERS OLBs JAMES HARRISON AND LaMARR WOODLEY VS. CARDINALS OTs MIKE GANDY AND LEVI BROWN: If the Steelers are successful with the Cardinals running attack, then the goal will be to unleash the pressure on Kurt Warner. Where Warner is at his best is when he is able to recognize where the pressure is coming from, and when that happens he's often able to burn the defense. By having a pair of rushers off the edge who have the pass-rush ability to post double-digit sack seasons, the Steelers can force the Cardinals to slide their protection one way or the other. But Arizona is going to have to choose, and when they do choose then either Harrison or Woodley will get a matchup vs. a tight end or a running back. So far in these playoffs, teams have been sliding their protections to Harrison's side, and Woodley has responded with two sacks in each of those two games. Pick your poison, but either way it can prove to be deadly.
STEELERS WR SANTONIO HOLMES VS. CARDINALS CB DOMINIQUE RODGERS-CROMARTIE:During the regular season, Holmes finished second on the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns, but in the playoffs the Steelers former No. 1 draft pick has been a big-play machine. Against the Chargers, Holmes returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown, and against the Ravens he had a 65-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown and had another potential scoring play overturned on a questionable replay decision. Based on what he was able to provide the offense during the regular season, Holmes was going to have to do more in the playoffs for the Steelers to win a championship. He has accepted the challenge and produced in a dynamic manner. Rodgers-Cromartie was a No. 1 draft pick himself, and he possesses difference-making athletic skills. Where Holmes has an edge going into this game is in experience, because Rodgers-Cromartie is a rookie.
STEELERS LT MAX STARKS VS. CARDINALS DE BERTRAND BERRY: Starks is starting in his second Super Bowl, but it's his first as the team's left tackle. The Steelers offensive line has been an issue throughout this season, and Coach Mike Tomlin was being asked about the unit on an almost daily basis during the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIII. "As far as I'm concerned, that's still the question as we sit here today," said Tomlin when asked whether the offensive line has answered the call this season. "We are always going to be a team in the process of growth, jelling if you will, and coming together. I thought our guys have done a nice job of focusing on the things they can control – their level of preparation and their level of cohesiveness. Along the way, we've had bumps in the road." There have been bumps in the road, to be sure, but it's also fair to note that the bumpy portion of the road has included three games against the Baltimore Ravens, the owners of a defense that tortured many offensive lines this season. Ben Roethlisberger has not turned the ball over in these playoffs, and he also has had success buying time and keeping the play alive before delivering the ball down the field. The Steelers offensive line needs to allow him to do those things one more time.