NFC North: Doug Legursky

XLV: Packers won't face Pouncey

February, 4, 2011
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The most significant injury story of Super Bowl XLV has reached its expected conclusion: The Pittsburgh Steelers have ruled out center Maurkice Pouncey from the game. Backup Doug Legursky will make his fifth NFL start -- but first at center -- on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.

(Peter King of Sports Illustrated, the Pro Football Writers Association pool reporter this week for the Steelers, reports the Steelers have also ruled out defensive end Aaron Smith as well.)

There never seemed much doubt about Pouncey's status, but the Steelers delayed their final decision until Pouncey missed his third consecutive practice Friday. Legursky will be left to face Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji, a seeming mismatch, but our friends at Football Outsiders wrote extensively this week about other ways the Packers might attack the situation. Make special note of linebacker Clay Matthews' potential for a delayed blitz between the center and right guard.

"We're preparing for their offense," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Friday. "I don't think their protection schemes or their run concepts are going to change very much based on who's playing center, because Ben Roethlisberger is going to make that offense go. It will not change our approach defensively based on who's playing center."

Earlier this week, we discussed the likelihood that the Pouncey-Legursky discussion would overshadow another potential mismatch that could prove more important to the outcome of the game. Feel free to revisit our discussion on the Steelers' effectiveness when they run behind right tackle Flozell Adams.

DALLAS -- As you probably know by now, chances are slim that Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) will play Sunday in Super Bowl XLV. Even if Pouncey pulls off a miracle return, he'll still be playing on a high ankle sprain and a fractured bone in his foot. Whether the Steelers start a highly limited Pouncey or backup Doug Legursky, it will be natural to assume a significant advantage will shift to the Green Bay Packers.

That might well be the case, and I'm sure the Packers are thrilled by the possibility of nose tackle B.J. Raji matching up against Legursky. But Pouncey's likely absence will have a less direct effect on what the numbers tell us is a bigger discrepancy -- one that favors the Steelers' running game.

[+] EnlargeFlozell Adams
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarPittsburgh has enjoyed success running behind Flozell Adams.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Steelers averaged 5.9 yards per carry during the regular season when they ran behind right tackle Flozell Adams, the second-highest total in the NFL. And for reasons that will be hard to pinpoint, the Packers' otherwise strong run defense allowed 5.2 yards per carry in that same direction during the season. That number placed them No. 26 overall among NFL teams in that category.

It's not uncommon for NFL teams to be "right-handed," meaning they run better or more frequently toward the right side. But the rankings of the Steelers and Packers in this particular slice of the game point to an important combination: something the Steelers do particularly well with an area the Packers have lagged on a relative scale. Surely the center has an important role on plays run off right tackle, but it's far enough from the point of attack to provide some protection for a backup who is facing a budding superstar.

The Steelers would have faced difficulty running the ball at Raji even if Pouncey were healthy and available. The Packers allowed only three touchdowns on middle runs this season, and opponents managed a first down on middle runs once every 6.4 plays -- the league's best ratio among defenses in the regular season.

Pouncey's status will be a hot topic this week, as it should, but I'm guessing it will overshadow this matchup on the right side. My AFC North colleague James Walker suggests Adams deserves plenty of credit for the Steelers' run success this season, especially after making the switch from left to right tackle following the loss of injured starter Willie Colon. But explaining the Packers' relative weakness from a defensive perspective is more difficult.

Technically, the Packers' starting left end (matching up against the opponent's right tackle) is Ryan Pickett, a 340-pound run-stopper. And if you go by their depth chart, their left outside linebacker is All-Pro Clay Matthews. But as we've discussed before, the Packers rarely play in their base 3-4 alignment. They used at least five defensive backs together on 75 percent of their defensive snaps, often cutting back to two defensive linemen. Matthews, meanwhile, lined up at multiple places on the field over the course of the season.

To borrow a phrase, sometimes a coordinator can "rob Peter to pay Paul." In other words, they sacrifice one area to fortify another based on matchups. Sometimes, a statistic can be skewed based on a couple of big plays. So I'm not ready to send out warning signals on the left side of the Packers' rush defense.

But I think we can agree on this much: If you're defensive coordinator Dom Capers and you're trying to anticipate where the Steelers might attack, you bypass all of the talk about Pouncey and presume a steady diet of runs behind Adams. If the regular-season statistics are simply a matter of personnel alignments, the adjustment should be easy.