Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Looming Super Bowl XLV storylines
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Few things slip under the radar before a Super Bowl.
Super Bowl XLV might become one of the most overhyped title games in years. The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers come to Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas with plenty of winning tradition, star players and loyal fans between them. In the week before the Feb. 6 kickoff, each player from each team is available for one hour a day from Tuesday through Thursday, with selected players available Monday.
Head coaches Mike McCarthy and Mike Tomlin have to be available every day for news conferences.
Still, there are some stories that will be slipping under the radar. Here are five of them.
1. Dick LeBeau's future
Will Steelers guru Dick LeBeau say farewell after the Super Bowl?
The Steelers' defensive coordinator is 73, but he's become an icon in Pittsburgh. His contract expires after the season, and everyone knows that Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt would love to lure him to the desert. LeBeau has accomplished everything, and a third Super Bowl ring with the Steelers could cap a great career. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer. But he's also a young 73. Most people in Pittsburgh don't think he's going to leave the Steelers if he coaches next season. The team already has linebackers coach Keith Butler targeted to be his replacement, but the veteran defenders on the Steelers will want LeBeau to stay.
2. The impact of Charles Woodson on the Packers' defense
Safety Troy Polamalu gets the commercials because of his hair and his wild style of play, but Woodson is as valuable to the Packers' defense as Polamalu is to the Steelers. In 2009, Woodson was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Woodson's versatility is an ace in the hole for Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. In the Packers' 21-14 NFC Championship Game victory over the Chicago Bears, Capers used Woodson as a safety with a three-cornerback secondary. The ploy gave the Packers' defense the chance to use Woodson as the eighth man in the box to help stop the run. Third cornerback Sam Shields was used to help against the pass.
3. The Steelers' secret weapon, TE Heath Miller
Packers Woodson (21) and Hawk (50) and the Steelers' Miller (83) have storylines to watch.
Wide receivers Hines Ward and Mike Wallace draw the media crowds, but Miller might be the most important part of the Steelers' passing game. Remember the 2009 season, when the Steelers edged the Packers 37-36 in Pittsburgh? Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger felt he could take advantage of holes in the middle of the Packers' secondary. Miller had his best game of the season -- seven catches for 118 yards -- against the Packers. Miller is a great blocker and a dependable pass-catcher. In the Steelers' 24-19 AFC Championship Game victory over the New York Jets, the Steelers used a three-tight end set 20 times. The scheme accomplished two goals. It made the Steelers sturdier for run blocking. It also provided maximum protection for Roethlisberger to get some downfield passes to Miller. The Packers have had trouble containing tight ends for the past two seasons.
4. QB Aaron Rodgers' sore shoulder
Rodgers' name probably won't appear on the injury report because everyone knows he's playing. But his performance in the NFC Championship Game declined after a hit from Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. It's not as though Rodgers has a shoulder separation or a bad injury, but the toll of 16 regular-season games and three postseason games could affect his play in the Super Bowl. Consider Tom Brady in 2007. The New England Patriots star suffered an ankle injury late in the season and wasn't as sharp in the Super Bowl XLII loss to the New York Giants. Rodgers was sacked 31 times during the regular season and five times during the playoffs. He also suffered two concussions this season. Rodgers will play against the Steelers, but a slow start might make people wonder if there was a lingering effect from the Peppers hit.
5. The not-so-weakside linebackers
Because of their speed and range, the Packers' A.J. Hawk and Steelers' Lawrence Timmons were ideal prospects to be weakside linebackers in 4-3 defenses. Timmons was drafted into a 3-4, and the Packers switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which made for a difficult transition for Hawk. Timmons is one of the quiet stars of the Steelers. Nose tackle Casey Hampton and his teammates on the defensive line occupy enough blockers to free Timmons to make run stops. The fourth alternate to the Pro Bowl at inside linebacker, Timmons had 135 tackles and three sacks this season. After some initial struggles, Hawk improved in the Packers' 3-4 with 111 tackles. Hawk has a $10 million salary in 2011, and the team has to make a decision if he's worth that much to keep him at that price. Timmons is entering the final year of his contract, and the Steelers will try to re-sign him.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.