But that might not be what determines the winner.
That's because the Cardinals have transformed a suspect defense into a competitive outfit in the playoffs. They beat the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles by allowing 20.6 points per game (6.1 fewer than during the regular season), slowing down the run and pressuring the quarterback with a hybrid defense.
Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has built an interesting scheme with players known as "jokers." In the NFL, a joker is a player who can rush the passer or drop in coverage equally as well. One quick look at the Arizona players who fit that bill shows why opposing quarterbacks can struggle when trying to identify what will happen after the ball is snapped.
During the regular season, Cardinals LBs Chike Okeafor (4.5) and Karlos Dansby (4), DE Travis LaBoy (4) and SS Adrian Wilson (2.5) combined for more sacks than the front four of DE Bertrand Berry (5), DT Darnell Dockett (4), DE Antonio Smith (3.5) and NT Bryan Robinson (1). That means it's impossible for a quarterback, in a pre-snap read, to diagnose who the rushers are in Pendergast's defense.
In Arizona's three playoff games, the defense's production also has been interesting to diagnose. Wilson has 16 tackles, two sacks, three quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, two tackles for a loss and one pass defended, so Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger better know where the veteran safety is at all times. Okeafor has eight tackles, one sack, three quarterback hits and one pass defended. Dansby has 23 tackles, four tackles for a loss and two passes defended. Always moving around to disguise what they're going to do, Wilson, Okeafor and Dansby have made 15 plays behind the line of scrimmage in three playoff games.
Lately, the Cardinals have shown pressure looks from those players, then dropped them into coverage after convincing the opponent to use a maximum protection scheme. That means quarterbacks have to throw into coverage, resulting in eight interceptions and 21 passes defended.
Arizona's defense also likes to snatch-blitz any offensive player who's asked to check-release out on the snap of the ball. When a running back, tight end or wide receiver is responsible for picking up a blitzer before releasing on a pass route, the Cardinals' jokers often blitz that player and prevent a release. They don't try to beat the blocker to the quarterback but instead "snatch" him, and before you know it, the offense has just two receivers out on patterns.
For example, with two minutes remaining in the NFC Championship Game, the Cardinals showed a pressure look, with just two players with their hands on the ground and six more standing up in the box. That forced the Eagles into an eight-man protection with just two receivers out on patterns. Three defenders quickly snatched the running back, tight end and wide receiver, preventing their release, and the middle linebacker blitzed the quarterback. As a result, Eagles QB Donovan McNabb threw an incompletion.
On many occasions, Wilson will creep up to the line of scrimmage on the split-end side and blitz, and Dansby will jump outside to take over pass-drop responsibility. I've also seen Pendergast switch it up and bring FS Antrel Rolle off the tight-end side.
Another key to the Cardinals' joker package is the emergence of rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has shown that he can minimize a top wide receiver's production. I expect Rodgers-Cromartie to be matched up on Steelers WR Santonio Holmes all game. Holmes caught two touchdown passes to account for all of Pittsburgh's scoring in a 21-14 loss to Arizona last season, but the Cardinals didn't have their cover corner then. They do now.
In that 2007 game at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Steelers had Alan Faneca, Kendall Simmons and Marvel Smith on their offensive line, yet the Cardinals still sacked Roethlisberger four times. Pittsburgh's offensive line has played better lately but has surrendered five sacks in its two playoff games. Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm tutored the Steelers' front two years ago, and I'm sure he met with Pendergast to break down Pittsburgh's protection schemes.
Those Steelers pass-protection schemes didn't work well during the 2008 regular season, allowing the fourth-most sacks (49) in the NFL. And that's not a good thing against the Cardinals' joker package, which totaled seven sacks against three excellent pass-protection teams in the playoffs. The Falcons ranked fifth, the Panthers sixth and the Eagles seventh in fewest sacks allowed during the regular season.
The challenge for Pittsburgh's offense is if it pays too much attention to Arizona's jokers, then the front-four rush could be a problem. Five of the Cardinals' seven playoff sacks have come from the front four, and I don't believe RG Darnell Stapleton can block Dockett or RT Willie Colon can keep Smith out of the backfield.
The Steelers should want to run the ball, and their 70 carries to 59 pass attempts in the postseason indicates that will be the plan. But if they can't run the ball, and Pittsburgh's defense can't stop Arizona's scoring machine, then the Cardinals' jokers could go wild as the Steelers try to play catch-up.