Arians prepares Cardinals for meaningful trip to Pittsburgh
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — In the hills of West Virginia, amid trees awash in the brilliant colors of fall, a coach in the autumn of his career is plotting his return to Pittsburgh at the top of his game.
Bruce Arians brings his 4-1 Arizona Cardinals to Heinz Field less than four years after he was forced out as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator.
He insists his return is "no big deal."
"I’ve been in both sides of that locker room," Arians said after the Cardinals practiced on Wednesday. "I went back the year after I left for a preseason game. So yeah, it’s just another game on the schedule."
Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown, whose young career blossomed under Arians, believes otherwise.
"Knowing him and how prepared that he is," Brown said Wednesday on a conference call, "I’m sure he’s going to want to come in here and put on a show, being how many people counted him out and wanted him out of here."
He isn’t talking that way now, but Arians has repeatedly dropped hints about how he feels about how it ended in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers spread the word that he had retired when his contract wasn’t renewed. Arians uses the term "re-fired."
Arians’ son Jake told azcentral sports earlier this year that the Steelers ownership didn’t like the aggressive, big-play style of the offense under his dad.
"Nine years in Pittsburgh, he went to three Super Bowls and won two. But they don’t like offense in Pittsburgh," Jake Arians said. "It’s the weirdest town of all time. They want to win 3-0 with their middle linebacker having 25 tackles."
But being pushed out of Pittsburgh set in motion a series of events that put Arians where he is now. On more than one occasion, Arians has mentioned that when he wakes every morning he thanks the Rooney family (owner of the Steelers).
In 2012, two days into forced retirement, Arians got a call from Indianapolis coach Chuck Pagano offering him the offensive coordinator job. Arians jumped at the chance to work with young Andrew Luck.
Then just into the season, Pagano called Arians with awful news. Pagano had leukemia and Arians had been named interim head coach. After two decades as an NFL assistant, Arians got a chance to run a team. The Colts went 9-3 under Arians and he was named NFL coach of the year.
That led to Arizona, where he was hired in early 2013. The interim tag was gone. At age 60, Arians finally had a team of his own.
"I’m sure he always wanted one, when he was 40 and 50 and coming up," Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer said. "I’m sure there’s a little bit of a message kind of like, `I showed you guys. I told you I could do it.’ I’ve never heard him say that but you’ve probably got to assume that’s what is going on. He’ll probably never admit it. But he’s as good a head coach that there is in this game."
The Cardinals went 10-6 in Arians’ first season. Last year, they started 9-1 before an injury to Palmer sent the team in a downward spiral. The Cardinals were 11-5 and, with a third-string quarterback, lost a wild card playoff game at Carolina. Arians won his second coach of the year award.
With a healthy Palmer, the team Arians will bring to Pittsburgh leads the NFL in scoring and touchdowns. Three times the Cardinals have topped 40 points in a game, most recently in a 42-17 rout of the Lions in Detroit on Sunday.
But Pittsburgh is the first team with a winning record that Arizona has played.
"He’s so focused on this team and this year and not years past," Palmer said. "Obviously going back to the place you worked before there’s a little extra on it. But his focus is so on this team and getting to 5-1 … I don’t think he really has time to dwell on the past."
Notes: Arians said he expects newly signed outside linebacker Dwight Freeney to play 15 to 20 snaps on Sunday. "He rushes the passer. I don’t think you have to teach him that." … Safety Tyrann Mathieu (bruised heel), wide receiver John Brown (tight hamstring) and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (thigh bruise) sat out practice, but Arians said he expects all of them to be fine by Sunday.
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