Meet The Opponent: Steelers Take Trip to Desert in Showdown With Arizona Cardinals

Donnie Druin

Who: Pittsburgh Steelers (7-5) at Arizona Cardinals (3-8-1)
When: Sunday, December 8th at 4:25 PM ET
Where: State Farm Stadium, Glendale, AZ
Broadcast Network: CBS
Announcers: Andrew Catalon (play-by-play), James Lofton (analyst), Amanda Balionis (reporter)
Spread: Steelers (-2.5)

The Pittsburgh Steelers continue their quest of making the playoffs with their quadannual meeting with the Arizona Cardinals. Dating back to 1997, the Steelers have won 5/6 meetings with the Cardinals, including a Super Bowl victory that still resonates with Arizona faithful to this day (we'll touch on that later). 

Pittsburgh's next task features rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, who appears to be well on his way to becoming one of the more electrifying quarterbacks in the league. While this may be the first of many match-ups between Murray and the Steelers, this may be the last time Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald suits up against the Steelers. Fitzgerald, a Pittsburgh product before entering the NFL, remains one of the most respected men in the league, and the entire city of Pittsburgh pays their respects as his career winds down. 

Switching back to x's and o's, Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury looks to bring his high-flying offense to a Steelers defense that has been nothing short of impressive this season. How will Kyler fare with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree coming off the edge? Will Devlin Hodges come back down to Earth in Arizona?

Much like 50 Cent, I've got 21 questions (not really) heading into this game. Thankfully, John Venerable of RevengeoftheBirds.com was able to answer all inquiries I had. For more Cardinals news and updates, be sure to check out the Revenge of the Birds podcast along with his personal twitter page, @JohnnyTouchdown. 

Donnie Druin: John, please forgive me, but Pittsburgh has to know... Are people still upset about Super Bowl 43?

John  Venerable: They are absolutely still upset over the result of Super Bowl 43 but not to the extent that they still hold a legitimate grudge against the Steelers. That game, more or less, represents the last time the team was actually close to securing their first and only Super Bowl title. Outside of 2015, Arizona has been mostly average to horrific as a franchise.

Regardless of how they got there, that 2008 Cardinal team would have cemented themselves as legends within the state of Arizona had they been able to pull that off. Sadly, that was not the case.

Donnie: Man, what a season it's been for the Cardinals. For a lot of people reading this, this will be their first taste of Arizona football this season. How would you describe the current state of the Cardinals to a east coast newcomer like a lot of our readers?

John: The season itself has been a whirlwind of emotions for Cardinal fans, with the majority of the angst directed at the defense (which not so coincidently ranks 32nd overall). The Cardinals finished 2018 as one of the worst offensives in NFL history but have rebounded nicely with the ascension of Kyler Murray and the innovativeness of new head coach Kliff Kingsbury. While the numbers may not completely tell the story, Arizona fields the offense of a winning team. The problem is, when you’ve suddenly become a laughing stock on the defensive side, a lot of potential wins turn into moral victories.

That’s where we are with this team in 2019. They may very well end up with a similar record to the team that finished with the top pick in last April’s Draft, but we’ve already seen rapid improvement in the most critical areas (quarterback, head coach etc.). With that being said, the Cardinals still field a bottom five roster in the NFL and Murray can only mask so much. The good news is that they have a slew of cap space and a likely top five draft pick coming their way shortly after the New Year. The front office will need to capitalize on the opportunity that Murray’s rookie contract presents; that of course being near infinite cap flexibility.

Donnie: Last week I watched Kyler Murray have one of his worst performances of the season against the Los Angeles Rams. But I also watched him battle back and take the necessary lumps as a rookie quarterback. In my opinion, Murray is trending upwards to being something great. Would you just speak on Kyler's rookie campaign thus far, and your overall opinions on him?

John: I was firmly in the camp that not only won’t Arizona part ways with Josh Rosen, it would be a massive mistake to take two consecutive top 10 quarterbacks in the first round. Here in early December, I can definitively say the Cardinals made the right decision in going with Murray. As great as Nick Bosa has been with San Francisco, (and it’s been difficult to watch him put together a likely Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign) the Cardinals probably wouldn’t have a win with the combination of he and Rosen.

Everything that was teased pre-draft with Kyler Murray, the former Heisman winner has delivered on and then some. He is deadly accurate, likely the faster player on the team and is incredibly resilient. His arm talent is something to behold and unlike most young quarterbacks, Murray greatly limits his turnovers. If the Cardinals are able to competently build a quality team around him (and that’s a big “if”), they’ll have a competitive team for the next 5-7 years.

Statistically, Murray is on pace for roughly 20 passing touchdowns and just under 4,000 yards passing. In the rushing department, he should end up with right around 600 yards on the ground with five rushing TDs. All things considered, with generally the same supporting cast that Josh Rosen had from a year ago, 25 total touchdowns and 4500 yards from scrimmage seems like a good season for Murray.

Donnie: On the defensive side of the ball, the Cardinals currently allow 426 yards per game to go along with 29.3 points per game. Needless to say, Arizona has seen better days. What's been the main problem to stopping teams with players such as Patrick Peterson and Chandler Jones on that side of the ball?

John: Outside of maybe Miami, the Cardinals have the worst defensive personnel in the NFL and I’m not sure it’s close. Minus OLB Chandler Jones, they field zero impact defenders within their front seven as their defensive line is composed of journeymen and late round selections.

Draft busts like Haason Reddick and Robert Nkemdiche have only made matters worse, while free agent additions like Terrell Suggs have been massive disappointments. While first year defensive coordinator Vance Joseph has struggled mightily, it’s tough to argue with the starting 11 being amongst the league’s worst.

Patrick Peterson is likely playing out his final games in the desert, as his contract is set to expire at the year of 2020. He has made it clear that he’d like to exit Arizona and play for a contender, however his recent on field play indicates his market may be rather limited.

The Cardinals had a slew of trade offers for Peterson not only at the deadline but in the off season. Showing their arrogance, the Cardinals balked at all offers, thinking that Peterson would elevate a struggling unit upon his return from suspension. If anything, you could make the argument that the defense was better BEFORE his return in week seven.

Chandler Jones remains the lone constant for this team and his Pro Bowl efforts are once again overshadowed by the poor performance of his teammates. When it’s all said and done, Jones will likely have a Hall of Fame case, statistically, but his affiliation with so many poor defenses in Arizona will likely relegate him to the team’s Ring of Honor.

Donnie: You have a Steelers defense coming to town that allows just 18 points per game, while also forcing the most turnovers (30) with the third-most amount of sacks (43). If you're Kliff Kingsbury, what would be your gameplan going into this game?

John: The Cardinals have the kind of offense, with Murray at his best, that can spread teams out and force them to play in space. Arizona’s offensive line is finesse to its core, which means they won’t get anywhere if they try to lineup and play smash mouth football with Pittsburgh’s front.

The Cardinals lack team speed, and it shows at receiver, which means the physical Steeler CBs are likely to have their way with Arizona. Kingsbury will be creative, as he always is, and I would imagine you’ll see a good amount of RPO’s with Murray, running back Kenyan Drake and the incorporation of jet sweeps with ascending receiver Christian Kirk.

Arizona ran out to a 16-0 lead against San Fran two weeks ago utilizing similar methods offensively. I would imagine they’ll look to start fast again after such an embarrassing performance against LA last Sunday.

Donnie: If you could, circle a match-up you believe the Cardinals could take advantage of on Sunday.

John: Kyler Murray, on the edge, against Pittsburgh’s perimeter defense. TJ Watt has been masterful this season, but just like Nick Bosa two weeks prior, Murray can turn the corner and make a lot of quality defenders look foolish.

Kyler Murray in open space is Arizona’s one and only trump card because they are so limited elsewhere. Kingsbury will lure opposing teams to sleep with the intermediate passing game and then suddenly call a designed run to Kyle that he has a chance to house.

Donnie: Final score prediction? 

John: I do think it’ll be a close one, mainly because Pittsburgh has been winning ugly. However, I do think the Steelers are too well coached, especially defensively, for Arizona to pull this one out. Oh, and Arizona’s defense should make Hodges look like a Pro Bowl level signal caller. Save for Kyler Murray’s typical herculean efforts, the visiting Steelers win over the Cardinals by a final score of 24-21.

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