Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Seeing Red

Well, then, isn’t this NFL season shaping up to be an interesting one?

To tell the truth, Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls aren’t all that surprised to see what we consider the top four teams (Indianapolis, New England, Dallas and Pittsburgh) looking so good.

As the regular season approached, we became more and more upbeat about the Steelers and new coach Mike Tomlin, whom we like a lot. The team has looked terrific so far, albeit against three teams that most people would consider mediocre, at best. We remain optimistic that the Steelers will fare well, overall, the rest of the way.

What’s interesting to us is the sudden and precipitous decline in the performance of several teams we thought would be good: San Diego, Kansas City, New Orleans, Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Denver, Seattle … all have looked frayed at the edges and in varying states of disarray. Other teams (Jacksonville, Seattle, Miami, the Jets, St. Louis, Washington) already seem to be playing on the fringe of contention and appear like that’s exactly where they’ll stay.

And we’re okay with all of that.

As "they" say, one game at a time, and this week’s matchup takes the Steelers to the Arizona desert to meet the Cardinals. This matchup bears watching for several reasons:

  • The Coaching Connection – We all know that storyline: Ken Whisenhunt and RussGrimm, top assistants on Bill Cowher’s staff in Pittsburgh, were widely considered to be front-runners to be named head coach. The Steelers hired Mike Tomlin – and we believe he was the right choice – and the Cardinals hired Whisenhunt and Grimm, as well as others with a Pittsburgh connection both on and off the field, including Kevin Spencer, special teams coach. Naturally, everybody wants to see how this will play out, and this Sunday’s game will be compelling to watch if for no other reason than the coaching dynamics.
  • Yet there are other compelling reasons, and none more so than the Cardinals’ skill-position players. When Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls watched the Cardinals-49ers Monday night matchup to conclude the first week of the season, we became mildly concerned. The Cards have some elite skill-position players in wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald (former Pitt star), and running back Edgerrin James. Backup running backs Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington can provide a spark, too, as can wide receiver Bryant Johnson, a former number one draft pick from Penn State.
  • At quarterback, an ineffective Matt Leinart was replaced last Sunday by Kurt Warner, who absolutely lit up the Baltimore Ravens. Warner completed 15 of 20 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns, a 75 percent completion percentage and 150.0 QB rating. Anquan Boldin had 14 catches (!) for 183 yards (!!). All this came against the “vaunted” Ravens defense (chumps). We fully expect to see Warner replace Leinart, early, against the Steelers. The two-time NFL MVP has a quick release, veteran poise, and pinpoint accuracy when he’s on. This could be worrisome.
  • On defense, the Cards play a four-three defense and, like the 49ers, have a corps of talented, athletic players, including several good cover guys in the secondary and fairly consistent pressure up the middle. Standouts include safeties Adrian Wilson and Terrance Holt; corners Rod Hood and Eric Green; and middle linebacker Gerald Hayes, formerly of the Pitt Panthers. Defensive ends Antonio Smith and Bertrand Berry are quick, active and aggressive -- but perhaps a little undersized. Still, getting Willie Parker outside on this group might be a bit of a challenge.
  • We will watch another player with great interest. That would be kick returner/wide receiver Steve Breaston, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area and starred at Woodland Hills High School and the University of Michigan. The Cardinals drafted the speedy Breaston in hopes that he would become their version of the Bears’ electrifying return specialist, Devin Hester. Breaston has all the requisite skills, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed he doesn’t but a long return on Sunday.
  • For what it’s worth, former Steelers with the Cardinals include Chukky Okobi, backup center; Sean Morey; backup wide receiver and special teams specialist; Rodney Bailey, backup defensive lineman; Tim Euhaus, third-team tight end; and Mike Barr, punter and holder on place kicks. Hmmm, supposedly one reason Bill Cowher didn't keep Barr on the roster for the 2006 season was a lack of confidence in Barr's holds on placekicks. Might there be a field goal blocked on Sunday?

Should be fun.

Addendum: Expect to See Warner Run the No-Huddle

By the way, when Warner enters the game on Sunday early in the second quarter (if not sooner), look for the Cardinals to go into full no-huddle mode immediately.

Whisenhunt will have a built-in excuse for the quick trigger: He can explain that the veteran Warner is more comfortable with the no-huddle; that he wanted to use the no-huddle to pressure the Steelers’ defense and disrupt situational substitutions; and that he wants Leinart to master the intricacies of the position before burdening him with the no-huddle.

This will happen, and it provides Whisenhunt with a convenient way to replace Leinart without “replacing” him.