Familiarity provides little edge

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (left) and former assistant coach Ken Whisenhunt -- now the Cardinals' head coach -- worked together at a practice the Friday before Super Bowl XL in 2006. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

TAMPA, Fla. -- Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt hasn't been playing quarterback on the scout team in practice this week. He also hasn't been spending more time in defensive meetings or offering many helpful tips on how to fluster Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLIII. Whisenhunt knows the three years he spent as Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator might give him some advantage in this contest. He just doesn't believe it's the kind of edge that can make a huge difference in the outcome.

Yes, it might sound as if Whisenhunt has every reason to downplay his relationship with Roethlisberger, but the truth is, he might be right. If the Arizona defense really is going to cause multiple problems for Roethlisberger in this game, they likely will result from an inspired effort by a rapidly improving unit. The Cards' game plan will have to be sound, and their execution exact. Simply put, the Cardinals will try to attack the Steelers quarterback the same way every other opponent has -- by doing their best to limit his ability to make big plays at the worst possible time.

See, it has become a popular theory this week that Whisenhunt might have the same edge on Roethlisberger that former Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden had on former Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon in Super Bowl XXXVII. Gruden had intimate knowledge of Gannon's habits and the Raiders' offense -- he had coached the team from 1998 to 2001 before joining the Bucs in February 2002.

Being just one season removed from a Raiders' system that still had Gruden's stamp on it allowed Gruden to give his defenders specific tips on how to frustrate Gannon.

Gruden even went as far as to play quarterback in practice in the week leading up the Bucs' 48-21 victory in that Jan. 27, 2003, game. Tampa Bay intercepted five passes and returned three for scores.

But Whisenhunt hasn't seen the need to resort to such tactics for one key reason: He probably doesn't have a lot to offer. Roethlisberger has been playing for head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for the past two seasons -- and that's enough time for a lot to change in the quarterback's style.

"That really has been the million-dollar question this week," Roethlisberger said when asked what kind of advantage Whisenhunt might hold over him. "But when push comes to shove, the guys are playing football on the field. You can only coach so much. Coach Tomlin is only going to have so much of an effect on the game, as is the case with Coach Whiz and [Cardinals offensive line coach and former Steelers assistant] Russ Grimm. It's all about players playing."

What Roethlisberger realizes is that his game has come a long way since Whisenhunt left to take the Cardinals job in 2007. Roethlisberger was basically managing the offense when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL after the 2005 season. He made plenty of plays with his arm in the postseason, but that offense was built around a more predictable approach. The Steelers pounded the ball with running backs Willie Parker and Jerome Bettis, and Roethlisberger mixed in enough play-action passing to keep teams honest.

Now, the Steelers' offense revolves around Roethlisberger, largely because injuries to Parker and rookie Rashard Mendenhall forced the team to lean more on the pass this season. Roethlisberger also earned his first Pro Bowl nomination in 2007, and Whisenhunt understands that Arians' system has plenty of wrinkles he likely hasn't seen firsthand.

"It's been two years since we've been together, and a lot has changed since then," Whisenhunt said. "I don't think that knowing them makes that much of a difference. You still have to try to defend them, and you still have to try to be successful against them, which is a challenge in itself."

The major problem the Cardinals face, even if they do glean some useful information from Whisenhunt's experience with the Steelers, is Roethlisberger's penchant for improvising. All Arizona defenders understand that he can torment opponents with his mobility and his ability to keep plays alive. Every defensive player also knows Roethlisberger's size (6-foot-5, 241 pounds) could be an issue. Although most quarterbacks are easier for linemen and linebackers to corral, Roethlisberger has the potential to shake off tacklers and still make plays downfield.

Those same defenders add that Roethlisberger is far more polished than when they faced him in Arizona's 2007 regular-season victory over the visiting Steelers. In the Week 4 matchup of rookie head coaches Whisenhunt and Tomlin, Arizona won 21-14. The Cardinals limited Roethlisberger to 17-of-32 passing. He threw for two scores but was intercepted twice and sacked four times.

"He's gotten better with making decisions with the football," Cardinals cornerback Roderick Hood said. "You can see his maturity on film. When we played him before, he was lot more antsy in the pocket back then. Now, he's more patient, and you can see that he knows what he wants to do."

That's why the Cardinals' defensive backs are spending far more practice time focusing on shadowing receivers after plays break down. They know the last thing they need is for Roethlisberger to hit for some big plays in this contest. As for Roethlisberger, one of his major concerns has to be the health of wide receiver Hines Ward. If Ward remains plagued by a knee injury suffered in the AFC Championship Game win over Baltimore, it'll be much harder for Roethlisberger to have the success he covets.

There are bigger issues in this matchup than how the history between Whisenhunt and Roethlisberger will affect the game. Even Tomlin -- who was Tampa Bay's defensive backs coach in its championship season -- said the Bucs' success in that Super Bowl victory wasn't all because of Gruden's familiarity with Gannon.

"I really think it was overrated," Tomlin said. "It's a good story, but the reality is that when we were on that Super Bowl run, we faced that [West Coast offense] every day during the season -- in training camp, organized team activities, etc. Then we played San Francisco and Philadelphia and Oakland, which were all West Coast offense teams. So it got to the point that we didn't even have to change the cards for our scout team. We ran the same offense on our team, and we saw it three weeks in a row."

That doesn't mean Tomlin isn't concerned about how the Cardinals could attack Roethlisberger. He has seen that defense force Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme into six turnovers in an NFC divisional-round victory. So the Steelers should be ready for a unit that can create all kinds of havoc. What Pittsburgh won't have to worry about, however, is Arizona's getting that much extra help from its coach.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.