The curveball of the year in Pittsburgh for the year 2007 wasn't thrown by any Pirates pitcher. It was delivered from the Steelers to the city in the form of bypassing in-house candidates Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt to hire the Vikings' then-defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin.
Whisenhunt, the team's offensive coordinator and highly sought-after head coaching candidate, was scooped up by Arizona. The two teams met in Super Bowl XLIII just a season later, in the second year of each coach's tenure.
Tomlin's Steelers would win the game (and Whisenhunt would joke, maybe, in the NFL Films documentary of the game, Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes was out of bounds on his game-winning catch). Since then, Whisenhunt hasn't gotten anywhere near that level of success again.
But he's not holding that against Tomlin.
"Mike’s a friend. I have respect for the job he’s done there," he told John Glennon of the Leaf-Chronicle. "I don’t like the fact he beat me in the Super Bowl, but other than that, yeah."
Whisenhunt was fired in Arizona and spent a season as the Chargers' offensive coordinator, helping bring the plucky Bolts into the postseason last year, defeating AFC North champion Cincinnati in the wild-card round. He was then hired by the Tennessee Titans, where his successes have been few and far between.
Whisenhunt mentioned recently the Titans' huge investment in the team's offensive line - they signed free agent Michael Oher and drafted Taylor Lewan with the 11th overall pick. They had spent the 10th overall pick the previous year on offensive guard Chance Warmack. Whisenhunt helped develop the dominant Steelers' offensive line in the mid-2000s, but he hasn't seen that kind of success during his time elsewhere. The Titans' offense in general, particularly its line, has been lackluster so far in 2014, landing at 22nd overall in Pro Football Focus's Pass Blocking Efficiency stat. Tennessee is averaging 3.9 adjusted line yards per carry, a Football Outsiders' stat that encapsulates yards per carry and assigns weighted scores based on each carry.
This creates an intriguing matchup against the Steelers' banged-up defense. They may be without Steve McLendon again, who injured his shoulder during the Steelers' 20-13 loss to the Jets in Week 10. Safety Troy Polamalu and linebacker Ryan Shazier have already been ruled out, and cornerback Ike Taylor isn't expected to see the field for at least another week. The Steelers have made do with what they've got on the defensive side of the ball and the results haven't been outstanding. They're a bottom-third team in the league in scoring defense (23.9 points a game) although they are 13th in yards allowed (347.0).
The records of these two teams clearly are what stand in the most contrast to each other. The Steelers are favored by six in a primetime road game, which usually is a stronger indictment of the lack of quality characterizing the underdog. But that's a narrative the Steelers can't pay attention to anymore. With losses on the record against two of the worst teams in the NFL (the Jets and the Buccaneers can claim three wins between them, two against Pittsburgh), any opponent should be considered as seriously as one the Steelers might face in any future Super Bowl.
Just don't mention that to Whisenhunt. It's still a sore subject.