Steelers Opponent Preview: Pittsburgh West Visits Pittsburgh East

via Post-Gazette/Bob Donaldson Tomlin and Arians, back in the day

It’s been a while since the Steelers have seen the Cardinals. A lot has changed since 2011. Especially for the Cardinals…

History of the Matchup:

Here is the lifetime win/loss record for Cardinals vs. Steelers:

Steelers: 22 Cardinals: 9, Ties: 3. This includes the post season.

The first five games (1933—1939) were actually between the Pittsburgh (football) Pirates and the Chicago Cardinals. The record was 2-3. The Pittsburgh Steelers celebrated their first game as the Steelers in 1940 with a tie, in a game that ended with a score of 7-7.

In 1960 games were now between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the St. Louis (football) Cardinals. The record in that era was 9-12-2.

The franchise moved to Arizona in 1988, where they were the Phoenix Cardinals, briefly, before becoming the Arizona Cardinals. The record since 1988 is 4-3, which includes Super Bowl XLIII.

The most recent win was in 2011. It was the second of the four NFC West games, and the Steelers were dominating the matchup. They beat the Seahawks first, 24-0. The Cardinals were more grist to their mill—they were beaten 20-32. Before the next NFC West game, the Monday Night Debacle at Candlestick Park, the Steelers visited the Chiefs, where they won the battle but lost the war.

This is a very different Cardinals organization than the one the Steelers traveled to Arizona to play. After an opening win against the Panthers the Cardinals had lost four in a row when they played Pittsburgh in mid-October. They would not win a game until November, when they beat the Rams in overtime. (This was the same Rams team the Steelers beat late in the season, 27-0, with Charlie Batch at quarterback.) From the ashes of a 1-6 start Head Coach Ken Wisenhunt coaxed forth the phoenix of an 8-8 season.

As well as Wisenhunt and Assistant Head Coach Russ Grimm there were other former Steelers on hand that day. Ray Horton was the Defensive Coordinator, and Deshea Townsend was an assistant DBs coach. Linebackers Clark Haggans and Joey Porter played in the game—it would be Porter’s last game of his career, as he was put on IR after it and retired thereafter. Crezdon Butler had also been picked up by the Cardinals but was on IR at that point. DE Nick Eason was the other former Steeler in the game.

The game featured some notable plays. Ryan Clark had an interception. (I guess it wasn’t as notable to the 2011 team, who had 11 of them that season, including two for, surprisingly, Ike Taylor. William Gay also had two that season.) LaMarr Woodley dumped QB Kevin Kolb in the endzone for a safety.

Ben Roethlisberger threw a pass from his own end zone, a long bomb to Mike Wallace, who ran it in for a touchdown. Since the LOS was at the 5 it was a 95-yard touchdown pass—the longest play from scrimmage in Steelers history. AB made a beautiful one-handed grab to keep a drive going in the third quarter, and Ben shortly thereafter threw a TD pass to Emmanuel Sanders. They were indeed Young Money in this game.

The Cardinals were not without splash plays as well. On 2nd and 18 QB Kevin Kolb hit LaRod Stephens-Howling with a short dump-off pass that he took 73 yards for a touchdown. But it was mostly about the Steelers.

2015 contest:

As they say, that was then, this is now. The coaching staff of the Cardinals is, of course, headed by the man who was the Offensive Coordinator on the Steelers’ sideline back in 2011, one Bruce Arians. A figure who perhaps gathered more vitriol than any other Steelers coach has managed in recent times, Arians has gone on in his years of head coaching to have the following W/L record:

  • 2012: Indianapolis Colts: 9-3 (he took over from Head Coach Chuck Pagano after Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia)
  • 2013-15: Arizona Cardinals: 24-12, including 4-1 this season.

The nine wins with the Colts is the most for an interim coach in NFL history, and he won the AP Coach of the Year award, the first time it was ever given to an interim. He won the award again after the 2014 season.

For a guy who didn’t know what he was doing in Pittsburgh, or so one would gather, he’s done pretty well as a head coach. I’d say the Rooneys did him a big favor when they suggested he “retire.” Or, as John Steigerward tweeted on Monday, “Bruce Arian’s Retirement is still going well…the Cardinals have scored the fifth highest total in NFL History for the first 5 games…”

Other ex-Steelers on the staff are Larry Zierlein, who is their assistant offensive line coach, and Larry Foote, who is the Assistant Linebackers coach.

Ex-Steelers on the roster: C A.Q. Shipley, DE Josh Mauro, and OLB Lamarr Woodley. UPDATE: I missed one—former Steelers punter Drew Butler.

Other ex-AFC North players who caught my eye were former Bengal/Brown DE Frostee Rucker, former Raven DE Cory Redding, and former Bengal TE Jermaine Gresham. Oh, yes, and former Bengal Carson Palmer, who is having a career year with the Quarterback Whisperer.

Offense:

Here are ratings for the purported starters, as per Pro Football Focus:

Cardinals:

  • Pro Bowl: QB Carson Palmer (91.2), WR Larry Fitzgerald (90.2)
  • Above average starters: LT Jared Veldheer (84.2), G Mike Iupati (82.3), WR John Brown (79.7)
  • Average starters: none
  • Back-up: C Lyle Sendlein (69.3), TE Darren Fells (66.4), RB Andre Ellington (63.6), G Jonathan Cooper (62.5), TE Troy Niklas (60.9)
  • Below replacement: RT Bobbie Massie (56.8)

Note: LG Mike Iupati, the Cardinals’ second-highest rated offensive lineman, has not yet practiced this week with a back injury.

Steelers:

  • All-Pro level: Antonio Brown (93.7) and Le’Veon Bell (94.4)
  • Pro Bowl: G Ramon Foster (85.4)
  • Above-average starters: Marcus Gilbert (80.4), Kelvin Beachum (82.0)
  • Average starters:  Heath Miller (70.8) and Marcus Wheaton (74.5)
  • Back-up: David DeCastro (61.2) Will Johnson (69.8) [This is a big move upwards for DeCastro.]
  • Below replacement level: Michael Vick (50.1), and Cody Wallace (36.7)
  • Not enough information to rate: Martavis Bryant

How well does this line up with the Football Outsiders‘ opinion of the two offenses?:

  • Cardinals offense:  No. 3, up from No. 5 the previous week, according to DVOA.
  • Steelers offense: No. 4, up from No. 6 the previous week.

As far as individual players, we’ll compare them by category according to their ranking by Pro Football Focus:

Quarterbacks: Carson Palmer: (No. 2); Michael Vick is ranked at No. 41, down from No. 33 last week.

The Cardinals have the clear advantage at quarterback—I don’t think I’m shocking anyone by saying that, although it might have been a surprising statement a couple of years ago.

Ben practiced yesterday. Dr. Roethliberger has declared himself “day to day.”  If Ben should be back for this game, and I sincerely hope he won’t, his record after returning from an injury is not good, possibly because he tries to come back too soon. I’m hoping the team is playing this VERY conservatively. Far better to be without Ben for a few more weeks now than to risk losing him again for the foreseeable future. Yes, there’s always that risk, but it is way worse with a half-functioning QB.

I’m hoping there has been something of a sea change in re injury issues. I am really glad they are taking their time with Ryan Shazier. Stingers are easily re-injured, and he had weakness, which means nerve damage. So whether he things he’s ready or not, I’m glad to see the coach making the call, not the player.

Running backs:

Le’Veon Bell, (No. 1), DeAngelo Williams (No. 18), David A. Johnson (No. 50) Andre Ellington (No. 58)

Everyone else is ranked below this.

Wide Receivers:

Antonio Brown (No. 2), Larry Fitzgerald (No. 3) John Brown (No. 21), Marcus Wheaton (No. 38), Darrius Heyward-Bey (No. 59)

Everyone else is way below 60. Martavis Bryant is a wild card. John Brown has a hamstring injury and didn’t practice Wednesday. He’s the one-trick pony go route guy that helps open up things for Fitzgerald, and as we know they can be pretty valuable, so if the Cardinals want to be really careful with him I would be all in favor of that. He did practice Thursday on a limited basis.

Tight Ends:

Heath Miller (No. 24), Matt Spaeth (No. 31), Darren Fells (No. 37)

Everyone else is well below this. The Steelers have struggled with top-flight tight ends, but fortunately the Cardinals don’t seem to have any. But they do have Larry Fitzgerald, who might as well be one…

Offensive Line:

  • In Run Blocking ARZ is No. 2, PIT No. 6, down from No. 4 last week.
  • In Pass Protection ARZ is No. 8, PIT No. 25, same as last week.

Defense:

Arizona:

  • Pro Bowl: DE Calais Campbell (87.1), CB Tyrann Mathieu (88.6)
  • Above Average starter:  CB Patrick Peterson (81.9) and S Tony Jefferson (84.4)
  • Average Starter: DE Frostee Rucker
  • Back-up: OLB LaMarr Woodley (64.9), OLB Alex Okafor (69.3), NT Rodney Gunter (66.1), ILB Deone Bucannon (69.2), S Rashad Johnson (68.1)
  • Below replacement: CB Jerraud Powers (50.4), ILB Kevin Minter (58.3), DE Josh Mauro (52.6)

Pittsburgh:

  • Pro Bowl: Cameron Heyward (86.8), Mike Mitchell (86.3)
  • Above Average Starter: James Harrison (81.8), DE Stephon Tuitt (79.9) [This is a really big move up for Tuitt]
  • Average Starter: Ross Cockrell (76.7) Steve McLendon (70.2)
  • Back-up: Ryan Shazier (61.7)
  • Below replacement: William Gay (53.5),  Bud Dupree (47.2), Antwan Blake (41.6) and Lawrence Timmons (33.6)

PFF ratings:

Defensive Interior:

Calais Campbell (No. 6), Cameron Heyward (No. 7), Stephon Tuitt (23), and Frostee Rucker (No. 46)

The rest are below 50.

Edge Defenders:

James Harrison (No. 12), Jarvis Jones (No. 61),  Alex Okafor (No. 63), Markus Golden (No. 64)

Everyone else is below 70. Alex Okafor is already declared out for this game, and they don’t have a lot behind him, apparently. LaMarr Woodley is also dealing with an injury and didn’t practice either Wednesday or Thursday, so it’s possible they will be a bit thin on the edge. For the Steelers, Jarvis Jones has some sort of hip injury, and was a limited participant yesterday.

Linebackers:

Alani Fua (No. 48), Ryan Shazier (No. 60)

Everyone else is below 80.

Shazier was still a limited participant at Thursday’s practice.

Cornerbacks:

Tyrann Mathieu (No. 4), Patrick Peterson (No. 14), Justin Bethel (No. 26), Ross Cockrell (No. 29)

That is all the rated CBs for the Cardinals. All the rest of the Steelers’ CBs were rated below 100. The other significant injury is Tyrann Mathieu, who has a heel injury. Again, it would be a very fortunate thing for the Steelers’ offense if Mathieu was out. He did not practice on Wednesday but was a limited participant on Thursday.

Safeties:

Mike Mitchell (No. 8), Tony Jefferson (No. 11), Deone Bucannon (No. 44), Rashad Johnson (No. 46), Shamarko Thomas (No. 51)

It goes way down from there. Will Allen was having an MRI yesterday for his ankle injury, but it seems safe to say Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden are going to get some more reps. Allen hasn’t practiced yet this week.

These are the Football Outsider assessments:

Total Defense:

  • Steelers: No. 15, down from No. 13 the previous week
  • Cardinals: No. 3

Defensive Line:

  • Steelers: Run blocking: No. 8; Pass protection No. 7 (Nos. 16 and 6 previous week.)
  • Cardinals: Run blocking No. 1: Pass protection No. 26

Special Teams:

  • Steelers: No. 24  (No. 24 last week.)
  • Cardinals: No. 6

The Wrap:

Let’s start with the Steelers’ defense this week. Matthew Marczi of Steelers Depot wrote an article in which he stated that as you look at how the New England Patriots have played thus far it makes the Steelers defense look much more impressive in that they only gave up 28 points in the Week 1 tilt. In subsequent games the Patriots put up 40 points on the Bills, 51 points on the Jets, and 30 points on the Cowboys, who only managed 6 total points in that game, meaning there was little pressure to score a lot more.

I felt at the time that the Patriots game seemingly being winnable was as much due to the defense as the offense. (I also wonder how well the offense would have done if the coaches had stopped trying to relay information to the field and just told Ben to call the game. I guess this goes back to Ivan’s post earlier this week.)

Dale Lolley tweeted on Monday, right before the Chargers game, that the Steelers’ defense had gone 12 games without allowing a rushing TD to a running back. (I assume the qualifier, “running back,” means another player, perhaps a WR or QB, had a TD as a rusher, but will check when my life gets less hectic.) Make that 13 games now.

I noticed Lolley isn’t tweeting about TDs allowed to stud TEs. I think that might be a record in the other direction. Let us be sincerely grateful the Cardinals don’t have a stud TE, and hope they don’t have a TE the defense makes look like a stud. Because goodness knows the defense, which is playing so well in so many ways, has struggled to bring down the big guys.

On paper, the Cardinals’ offense vs. the Steelers defense is much better than the Steelers’ offense vs. the Cardinals defense. Unlike the Chargers, the Cardinal defense is best against the run, which is the current strength of the Steelers offense.

Honestly, though, I find the ratings odd. I think it is fair to say that the most formidable unit of the entire team is their secondary. Patrick Peterson is playing extremely well after having an off year last season. According to Tunch Ilkin the reason for that was undiagnosed Type II diabetes, which are now treated and under control, and he’s back to what you would expect of a player with his pedigree.

The Cardinals took a big chance on Mathieu, and he’s repaying them with interest. Honey Badger don’t care that he is 5’8″ and the receiver in front of him may be close to a foot taller than he is an outweigh him by 40 pounds. [Warning—don’t click the link if there are small children around. The video utilizes, shall we say, a host of colorful language.]

The secondary already has 11 interceptions. I think it is safe to say that ball security is going to be even more critical this week. I’m guessing the Cardinals DBs won’t drop the gift-wrapped INTs like the Chargers guys did. So let us hope they can in fact get the running game going. To do so, they are going to have to complete some passes.

Le’Veon Bell may be able to make chicken soup out of chicken poop, but he’s at least got to have some poop to work with, and when teams can put nine men in the box the poop supply dries right up. I would be really happy not to see run, run, pass INC, punt ever again, as there was seemingly a lifetime worth of that particular offensive series on Monday. (And I use “offensive” in both senses.)

The return of Martavis Bryant is indeed a wild card. If he and Vick re-establish the connection they had briefly in the preseason, and Antonio Brown can continue to attract multiple defenders, that could make a big difference.

On the other side of the ball, the Cardinals offensive line is a great deal better than the MASH unit the Chargers put on the field. (At one point San Diego was even shuffling positions as yet another player went down.) And given the Cardinals line is rated No. 2 in run blocking, if I’m Bruce Arians I’m going to run the ball until the Steelers prove they can stop it. And then I’m going to throw all day to Larry Fitzgerald. Or a tight end. I expect ol’ Bruce watches plenty of film. We’ll have to hope he spent lots of time on the golf course at the West Virginia resort they are hanging out at. Probably not, though.

So is there any hope at all? Well, fortunately they don’t play the games on paper. And here’s one oddity of this season to hang some hope upon. If you look at the chart for sacks in Wednesday’s post  you will notice the Steelers defense had two sacks in the first, third and fifth games and five sacks in the second and fourth games. This means they are due for five sacks this Sunday. Obviously.

And honestly, I think if the blitzers can get to Palmer early and often, and the rest of them can stop the running attack, there may be some opportunities. Carson Palmer has only coughed the ball up three times so far, but he’s been picked by the Steelers often enough in past years, although generally by Troy Polamalu. Maybe Troy has imparted some of his secrets to Shamarko.

Who, by the way, should have had a fumble recovery for a touchdown on Monday night. The same sloppy refereeing crew who missed the clock problem (and the side judge who missed that has been suspended) also managed to miss that Thomas was never touched down, and the play should not have been whistled dead. Maybe a few of these things will benefit the Steelers on Sunday.  Stranger things have happened. Like, maybe, winning a game it looks like you should have lost on a last-second Wildcat play.

If the Steelers’ defense can hold the Cardinals to 20 points, though, they will be the first ones this season. The closest was the Rams, who held them to 22 in an upset in Week 4. So it can be done, more or less. Otherwise, the Cardinals have scored 31, 48, 47, and 42 points in their four wins.

At the beginning of the season, with Ben upright and the offense clicking on all cylinders, I would have said “just outscore them.” But desperate times call for desperate measures. Let’s see what the coaching staff can do to fool the wily old fox Bruce Arians. Like maybe running a wildcat, except with Ben in full body armor taking the snap from center and throwing it to Vick, Bell, Williams, Brown, Bryant, or Wheaton according to where the defenders run. I call this formation the Housecat. I like it, except for the whole Ben getting re-injured or possibly killed thing. (And, unfortunately, the refs would call it “12 men on the field.”) If you have any other ideas I’m sure Todd Haley would love to hear them…

13 comments

  • I’m not sold on the Unstoppable Cardinals just yet. The teams they badly beat on – Saints, Bears, 49ers, Lions – will all pick in the top 10 in April. The only somewhat respectable team they played, the Rams, they lost to.
    Of course, as we all know from recent Steelers history, beating inferior opponents is not automatic, so kudos to them for being reliable. I just think their statistical position is a product of the early season bias.
    Their remaining schedule has maybe 2 easy games left (@49ers, @Eagles), 5 toss-ups (@Steelers, Ravens, @Browns, Vikings, Seahawks) and 4 games I think they will not be favored in: @Rams, @Seahawks, and against the yet unbeaten Packers and Bengals. I’d be really surprised if they can remain on these statistical heights at the end of the season. They just as easily can go 9-7 and miss the playoffs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really hope you’re right. The only thing is, they’ve been very good under Bruce Arians, going 11-5 last season with Carson Palmer out for all but 5 1/2 games or so, and winning a lot of games with Drew Stanton and Ryan Lindley. They won every single game Palmer started. I don’t think they will blow out the Steelers like they did the previous opponents they beat. But I think the Steelers will have their hands full to be competitive.

      Looking at the Football Outsiders Team Defense ranking, of the other teams the Cards have played, the defenses rank:

      New Orleans: 32
      San Francisco: 31
      Chicago: 28
      Detroit: 25
      Rams: 5

      Pittsburgh ranks 15th. If we can take this as predictive (which seems hasty) I would predict the Cards won’t put up more than 30 points. So the question is, can the Steelers offense score more than 30?

      Like

  • “Housecat”. I really like that term. Someone should develop a system to fit it just so we can broadcasters have to talk about it.

    ” Uh-oh! Ben’s in the housecat. Hide the children. “

    Liked by 1 person

    • Umm, I did develop a system : ) Although admittedly even I wouldn’t use it. But we’ll have to think on this. Maybe we should do a bye week contest. The winner will get a one year free subscription to Going Deep! Oh, wait… I guess I’ll have to come up with some other fabulous prize.

      Like

  • I can see two things happening…

    Steelers squeak out another win or get smoked by 3 touch downs.

    Like

    • If I knew for sure how many interceptions or lost fumbles the Steelers offense would cough up, I would be willing to say which I think it is. And I would be even more willing if I knew the Steelers D would get their five sacks : )

      Like

  • Hopefully this is Vicks last game as a starter. I like to think we can win but unless Haley changes his playcalling, I don’t see a win in the ‘cards’.

    HOWEVER

    Not to jinx anything but the steelers have been undefeated in games on or close to my birthday (10/20) since 2007! So I’m sticking with the streak extending to 9 games!

    Liked by 2 people

  • This may be a game of “who makes the last mistake.” Pressure Palmer, make them try to run on us. Play good defense. Limit mistakes on offense. Berry may get a lot of punts and he needs to flip the field when he does… I’d much rather see our D out there with a lead trying to hold the Win rather than Vick leading us to a 2nd straight Walk off Win….. if we can get Momma her 5 sacks and a couple turnovers, it’ll be 4-2 for the good guys…

    Liked by 2 people

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