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As coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, it is Mike Tomlin’s job to know as much as he can about his players. The only people that may know as much will be on the opposing sideline Sunday.
Tomlin will try to lead the Steelers to their first 4-0 start in 28 years when they visit the Arizona Cardinals.
When Tomlin was hired as coach of the Steelers on Jan. 22, there were some who thought the position should have gone to Ken Whisenhunt, who was named coach of the Cardinals eight days earlier. Whisenhunt was Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator from 2004-06, serving as an assistant under Bill Cowher for six seasons.
Also a candidate for the Steelers head coaching position was Russ Grimm, now Whisenhunt’s assistant head coach in Arizona. Grimm was also an assistant for six seasons under Cowher.
“When Cowher retired, everybody in the league wanted two of our guys, so you’d think we would want at least one of them,” Steelers All-Pro guard Alan Faneca said.
Despite the obvious connections between the teams, Tomlin said he isn’t treating Sunday’s game different than any other.
“It is really a non-story for me, to be honest with you,” he said. “It is a big game because it is the next game. I am here. I want to be here. I am glad to be here. If it is a story at all, it is their story, not ours.”
While three games is a very small measuring stick, Pittsburgh (3-0) appears to have made the correct choice in Tomlin, who has the Steelers on the verge of their first 4-0 start since 1979.
“There is mobility in the coaching ranks, there is free agency, there is mobility with the players, it is really not unusual,” Tomlin said. “We have Kirby Wilson on our staff who coached last year at Arizona, I would imagine that is not going to be much of a story this week.”
Wilson is the Steelers’ running backs coach after spending the previous two seasons in the same capacity with the Cardinals.
A 3-0 start of any kind is impressive enough, but the Steelers have accomplished that under a rookie coach with relatively little resistance.
Pittsburgh has been dominant in nearly every facet this season, outscoring its first three opponents - Cleveland, Buffalo and San Francisco - by a combined 97-26.
The Steelers are third in the NFL in scoring (32.3), first in rushing yards (595) and points allowed (8.6) and second in sacks (12).
Willie Parker has been the offense’s main catalyst with a league-best 368 rushing yards. He had his third 100-yard game of the season in Sunday’s 37-16 home victory over San Francisco, reaching the 100-yard mark for the sixth time in his last seven contests.
One of the key pieces in Pittsburgh’s offense, however, will be missing Sunday. Four-time Pro Bowl receiver Hines Ward is out with a sprained right knee.
Ward, second on the team with nine receptions, has at least one catch in 136 consecutive games and has missed just three contests due to injury in his 10-year career.
This game gives the Steelers another opportunity to continue their dominance over NFC teams. They are 13-1 in their last 14 meetings against the opposite conference, including a victory over Seattle in Super Bowl XL.
Although the Cardinals have lost two of their first three games, they are just a few seconds away from joining the Steelers in the ranks of the unbeaten.
Arizona lost its season opener 20-17 to San Francisco on a field goal with 22 seconds left, then beat Seattle 23-20 on a last-second field goal before losing 26-23 Sunday at Baltimore on Matt Stover’s field goal as time expired.
The loss to Baltimore was notable for another reason - Kurt Warner replacing starting quarterback Matt Leinart after just two series. The two were platooned for the rest of the game with Warner playing the entire fourth quarter and nearly rallying the Cardinals from a 23-6 deficit after throwing two touchdown passes to Anquan Boldin.
Whisenhunt said Monday that Leinart is still his starter, but that Warner also will see playing time.
“We’re going to try to find ways to keep Kurt playing based on how he played yesterday,” he said. “But I don’t feel like Matt has done anything to lose the job.”
Whisenhunt likes to use the no-huddle approach and believes Warner operates better than Leinart under that system.
“It’s not maybe the perfect scenario, but I think out of respect for Kurt and what he’s done, and also as Matt’s worked hard and done what we’ve asked him to do, that’s the best approach for us right now,” he said.
Whether Leinart or Warner is on the field, they have one of the league’s top receivers at their disposal. Boldin had a career-high 14 catches for 181 yards and two TDs in Sunday’s loss, and is tied for fifth in the NFL with 22 receptions.
To make a run at its first playoff spot since 1998, Arizona needs top running back Edgerrin James to rebound from a disappointing 2006 season, his first with the Cardinals. Although minimal, James has shown improvement, rushing 60 times for 277 yards this season after carrying 68 times for 231 yards after three games last year.
A victory Sunday would give the Cardinals a .500 record or better after four games for the first time since 2002, when they split their first four contests.