XLV: The difference a year makes

February, 3, 2011
2/03/11
5:00
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Five hundred and three. That's a "5" at the beginning, a "3" at the end and a "0" in the middle.

503.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards in one game last season against the Green Bay Packers, the most by an opposing quarterback in their 91-year history.

503.

The total fell 24 yards short of the NFL record set 20 years ago by Warren Moon.

"It was a disaster," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said Thursday.

What happened in that game? How did Roethlisberger put together one of the most productive games in NFL history? And why are the Packers so confident they are better equipped to defend him in Super Bowl XLV?

As usual, I have a few thoughts.

In speaking to Packers players and coaches this week, it seems clear they believe two factors were behind the onslaught. One was a perceived unfamiliarity with the still-new defense that coordinator Dom Capers was installing, leading to a vanilla game plan. The second was a series of personnel issues that left the Packers reaching deep into their roster for healthy defensive backs.

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
AP Photo/Gene PuskarMike Wallace hauled in two TDs against the Packers in Week 15 last season, including a 60-yarder on the Steelers' first play from scrimmage.
On the Steelers' first play from scrimmage in that game, Roethlisberger threw a 60-yard touchdown pass to receiver Mike Wallace. Defending on the play was nickelback Jarrett Bush, who made a poor adjustment as Wallace gathered in an underthrown pass.

And on their final play from scrimmage, Roethlisberger threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Wallace. On that play, dime back Josh Bell was matched up in single coverage.

Bush and Bell were on the field only because of injuries to players who began the year ahead of them on the depth chart. Capers seemed to be protecting them for much of the game by limiting his normally thick playbook. Roethlisberger used his innate pocket elusiveness to buy more than enough time for his receivers to get open. The Packers estimate they missed at least five potential sacks in the game.

"My recollection was we didn't do much," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "We called maybe a few calls in that game. The few calls we made, we dropped a lot of those calls and dropped our coverages. We had opportunities on Ben to get him sacked and we couldn't get him down, and then he made some plays with his feet. He got the ball down to his receivers. That day, it seemed like we couldn't do anything right and we hope that won't happen again."

Sunday, the Packers will start three Pro Bowl players in their secondary: Woodson, Williams and safety Nick Collins. Rookie Sam Shields has locked down the nickel job; he and Williams have combined for five interceptions in the postseason. As we've discussed, Capers has unleashed his full repertoire of late.

"I think just understanding the defense better [has helped]," Woodson said. "And [also] the speed at which the young guys like Sam and Tramon have picked up the game has made it a lot better as far as corners are concerned. ... You just have guys up there who are communicating well and playing at a fast level because they understand the defense. We got guys who can make plays out there and have very good ball skills. That's why we're playing at a high level."

The Steelers won that game 37-36, but this season the Packers allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL. Opponents have scored more than 20 points in only five of the Packers' 19 games.

"I just think we've grown up from last year," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "We have a young team, same nucleus, same players. But we're playing some good ball. It's our second year in this scheme, and Dom really understands the strengths and weaknesses of each player and where to put him at times. We've been playing some real good ball and it's only fitting that we would be in this position."

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