After breaking down game film and studying the metrics, I have isolated five keys for Super Bowl XLIII. They are:
1. Can the Steelers keep Larry Fitzgerald in check?
Fitzgerald is playing as well as any wide receiver in NFL history right now (and, yes, that includes Jerry Rice), but that doesn't mean Dick LeBeau's crew will be unable to slow him down. I say this because Pittsburgh was quite effective when going up against wideouts who ended the regular season with 1,000 or more yards.
These seven are among the best in the league, and Pittsburgh held them to a collective 6.5 yards per attempt (YPA). To put that number into perspective, consider that a wide receiver who ends the season with a 6.5 YPA will typically find himself in the bottom 10 in that category. This doesn't mean the Steelers will shut Fitzgerald down, but there is a precedent to say they will be able to keep him from winning the game all by himself.
2. If Fitzgerald is limited, will Anquan Boldin be able to step up against top-level competition?
My study in Scientific Football 2008 on Boldin's productivity when facing strong, average and weak cornerbacks proved very enlightening. During the 2007 season, Boldin gained 164 yards on 26 attempts, or a meager 6.3 YPA, against strong or average cornerbacks. This trend continued in 2008, as Boldin tallied only 152 yards on 23 attempts (6.6 YPA) against strong or average cornerbacks.
Because all of the Steelers' cornerbacks posted YPAs of 7.0 or less, they would definitely be considered on the strong side of the cornerback equation. Boldin has not beaten this level of competition with much success the past two years. If Pittsburgh is able to keep Fitzgerald from posting MVP-like numbers, the Cardinals will need Boldin to break this trend.
3. Can Pittsburgh force Kurt Warner into errors?
The Steelers posted terrific numbers in many areas this year, but one metric in which they underperformed was forced bad decision percentage (how often a quarterback makes a mistake with the ball that leads to either a turnover or a near turnover). Pittsburgh's 2.9 percent rate in this area ranked it 16th in the league, and four of its 16 forced bad decisions came in a single game (Week 13 against New England). The Steelers were able to turn this trend around against Joe Flacco in the AFC title game, but let's not forget that Flacco was a rookie who ended up the season with a 3.3 percent bad decision mark (ninth-worst in the league).
On the plus side for Arizona, Warner ended the year with a very strong 2.1 percent showing. On the minus side, he did have three games with at least three bad decisions, so when he does have a bad game, it tends to be a really bad one.
4. Will sometime gunslinger Ben Roethlisberger find a way to limit his bad decisions against a Cardinals defense that was very good at forcing bad decisions in 2008?
It is paramount for Pittsburgh's defense to keep the Cardinals from charging out to a sizable lead. The Steelers' weakest area is the passing game on many levels. Roethlisberger's 15 interceptions were tied for the fourth-most in the league and his 20 near interceptions show that number could have been even worse.
5. Can the Steelers' pass blocking hold up if Arizona gets a lead?
Pittsburgh gave up the fourth-most sacks in the league as a group and it didn't do much better individually, as four of the team's linemen gave up at least four sacks.
If that wasn't enough, Clancy Pendergast's defensive unit was one of the best in the league at forcing errors. The Cardinals' 3.3 percent mark for the year placed them tied for ninth-best and their 26 near interceptions was also a top-10 showing. Add it all up and it means that the Cardinals' defense could be the sleeper unit of this game.
KC Joyner, aka the Football Scientist, is a regular contributor to ESPN Insider. His core coverage metrics for all skill-position players and cornerbacks are available in the ESPN Fantasy Football Magazine. His new book "Blindsided: Why The Left Tackle is Overrated and Other Contrarian Football Thoughts," is available in bookstores and on Amazon.com. For more information, check out KC's Web site, www.thefootballscientist.com.