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Arizona Cardinals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers Preview and Prediction

Bruce Arians

Bruce Arians

After the 2011 football season, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians retired/was fired/did not have his contract renewed by the front office after a 12-4 record the season after winning an AFC title and losing to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV.

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Arians then joined Chuck Pagano's staff in Indianapolis, did wonders with Andrew Luck, went 9-3 as an interim head coach in 2012, and is now enjoying success in Arizona perhaps never seen before in franchise history as the Cardinals’ head coach.

He’s done it with an assistant coaching staff that reads like a who’s who of unsung Pittsburgh sports heroes. Assistant head coach Tom Moore once held a similar role under Chuck Noll. Assistant coaches Brentson Bucker and Larry Foote both played on Super Bowl teams for the Steelers. Strength and conditioning coach Buddy Morris made out the lifting plans of the great University of Pittsburgh teams in the early 1980s as well as during Dave Wannstedt’s mini-revival at Pitt several years ago, and his assistant, Roger Kingdom, was an Olympic gold medalist and Dapper Dan Award winner.

At least the Steelers have Carnell Lake, Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter on their own staff!

This winner of this game will be a true contender, but there’s additional meaning to beating the Steelers for the Cardinals. Larry Fitzgerald is returning to play in the same stadium he did in college. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley is a former Steeler, and former Cincinnati Bengal Carson Palmer is no stranger to Heinz Field. There aren’t many veterans left from when these two teams played in the Super Bowl seven years ago, but a victory in Pittsburgh would be extra sweet to Cardinals enter Lyle Sendlein and defensive end Calais Campbell.

Arizona at Pittsburgh

Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)


Spread: Cardinals -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. What’s more resurgent, the Cardinals’ offense or the Steelers’ defense?
The Cardinals lead the NFL in scoring with 190 points. They are the 12th team of the Super Bowl era to have outscored their first five opponents by at least 100 points. Seven of the previous 11 teams went to the Super Bowl. All made the playoffs.

The reason is a running game in which the Cardinals’ three leading rushers - Chris Johnson, Andre Ellington and David Johnson - are all averaging more than five yards per carry. Therefore it is imperative inside linebacker Ryan Shazier return for this game from a three-game hiatus from a shoulder injury, as he made 15 tackles against San Francisco and the Steelers have been suspect in pass coverage in the flat without him.

On the other hand, new defensive coordinator Keith Butler’s Bison Blitz packages have resulted in 16 sacks for the Steelers, the fourth-highest total in the NFL.

Since Will Allen injured his ankle in the Steelers’ 24-20 victory at San Diego on Monday night and didn't return to practice until Friday (in a limited capacity), it’s likely Sharmarko Thomas will take his place. The Cardinals’ line has protected Palmer well this year, so the Steelers' ability to disrupt him is imperative.

2. Strategy
Bruce Arians was never a popular figure in Pittsburgh. When he was the head coach at Temple the Owls always seemed to have Pitt’s number, and then as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator he was a whipping boy despite the team's success during his tenure.

He’s enjoying the last laugh now, and though he won’t mention it publicly, a victory against his old boss Mike Tomlin would be most satisfying.

Arians had the Cardinals train for this game at Greenbrier in West Sulphur Springs, W. Va., rather than make the trip back to Phoenix following last week’s game at Detroit. Arizona players have discussed how professional practice has been, with the Cardinals getting up early instead of practicing in the afternoon and naturally having less media to handle.

Tomlin, meanwhile, will try to play a ball control game to keep possession away from Arizona’s high-scoring offense but also its defense. The Cardinals’ secondary has returned three interceptions for touchdowns and Michael Vick has not proven to be an effective downfield passer, his 72-yard touchdown pass on Monday night to a wide open Markus Wheaton notwithstanding.

3. Just what can Michael Vick do these days, anyway?

As any Pittsburgh sports fan can tell you, Terry Bradshaw began his career as a scrambler but evolved into a drop-back passer in the second half of his career.

At 35, conventional wisdom had Vick doing the same. Only this season when Vick has been a pocket passer he has looked awful, but when he rolled out against the Chargers he was sensational.

With two starts under his belt, could the old Vick be back? His 24-yard scramble was the key play of the Steelers’ final drive to set up Le’Veon Bell’s 1-yard touchdown run to beat San Diego at the gun.

There is a school of thought as a left-handed thrower Vick was able to take advantage of Chargers’ right cornerback Donald Brown. Arizona right cornerback Jerraud Powers has only defended four passes this season and is the only starter in the Cardinals’ secondary not to return an interception for a touchdown, so look for the Steelers’ wide receiver that lines up on the left side of the line to be a key, especially with the likely return of Martavis Bryant from suspension and injury.

Final Analysis

The Steelers had it wrong about Arians. This is not to say Todd Haley has done a poor job as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator; Ben Roethlisberger was the league’s leader in passing yards last year and twice threw for a franchise-record six touchdowns in a game. But Arians isn’t just winning in Arizona, he’s winning in a most Pittsburgh way.

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Prediction: Cardinals 24, Steelers 21

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.