Thursday, February 3, 2011
Updated: February 4, 9:41 AM ET
2009 matchup offers some clues
By John Clayton
Close to a week of Super Bowl hype hasn't changed anything: The No. 6 playoff seed that has only two players with Super Bowl experience remains a 2½-point favorite over an experienced No. 2 seed filled with veterans who own two Super Bowl rings.
Plenty of other things don't make sense in Super Bowl XLV.
• The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, participants in this Super Bowl, last met during the 2009 regular season. Both were ranked among the NFL's top five defensive teams, but they played a 37-36 shootout that the Steelers won at Heinz Field -- a game in which Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers combined for 886 yards of passing offense.
• Jerry Jones' plush new Cowboys Stadium, arguably the most lavish one constructed, is built next to a Walmart and a short jog from a Ross Dress For Less.
• Because of a once-in-two-decades cold spell, the Packers and Steelers, along with more than 5,000 credentialed media members, are experiencing their version of the Ice Bowl. The temperature in Dallas on Tuesday was lower than it was in Green Bay, at least for one day. It has been colder all week than it has been in Pittsburgh, and ice on the roads won't melt until the weekend. The Dallas-Fort Worth area has mounds of salt to spice up margaritas, but no one in North Texas can put in a to-go order on rock salt to melt the ice.
1. Take the over: The Steelers rank second in the NFL on defense. The Packers rank fifth. But based on last year's matchup between these two, it's hard to imagine a low-scoring game. Oddsmakers put the over/under at 44½. Because both teams use basically the same schemes, the chances of big plays abound. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau installed the Steelers' "Blitzburgh" defense with Bill Cowher in 1992. The Packers hired Capers to install that same 3-4 scheme in 2009. Both are high-risk, high-reward schemes that gamble extra rushers to sack the quarterback or create turnovers. Roethlisberger and Rodgers see those defenses every day in practice, so they won't be surprised by anything and will have the opportunity to make big offensive plays. The teams put up 973 yards of offense combined in their last meeting.
2. Differences from the 2009 meeting: The Steelers' defense was vulnerable to Rodgers in 2009 because safety Troy Polamalu didn't play. History shows that Polamalu's presence shaves a touchdown per game off the Steelers' defensive stats, and the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year will do his best to confuse Rodgers by the way he lines up and rushes. Although cornerback might not be a strength position for the Steelers, they brought back Bryant McFadden, whom they had let go in free agency in 2009, and now have three experienced cornerback starters -- Ike Taylor, McFadden and William Gay. For the Packers, Tramon Williams, a Pro Bowl cornerback, and Sam Shields upgrade a 2009 secondary in which Jarrett Bush was torched at cornerback. On offense, though, the Packers are missing two significant players who were not injured for last year's contest -- tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant.
3. Dome-field advantage: Some say that the Packers' passing offense offers some of the excitement of the Dick Vermeil-Mike Martz St. Louis Rams, once billed "The Greatest Show on Turf." The Steelers must expect Rodgers and his receivers to be even more dangerous when playing indoors. During his career, Rodgers completes 66.8 percent of his passes, averages 8.62 yards an attempt, gets 265 yards a game and 1.8 touchdown passes a game when playing indoors. The key stat is he has only five interceptions in 10 dome games. Outdoors, Rodgers averages 3 percent fewer completions and almost a yard per throw less, and he has 27 interceptions in 44 games.
4. The Pouncey factor: Center Maurkice Pouncey, a Pro Bowler in his first NFL season, is expected to miss Super Bowl XLV with a high-ankle sprain. His replacement, Doug Legursky, handled the situation adequately during most of the AFC Championship Game. The good news for the Steelers is they have had two weeks to prepare Legursky and make sure his center-quarterback exchanges with Roethlisberger are smooth. They also have had time to scheme for the problems he will have with Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji, who is becoming one of the most dominating nose tackles in football. Expect the Steelers to run less into the middle of the field and maybe try more rollouts with Roethlisberger to protect him against blitzes over the center.
5. The "big five" strategy: Packers coach Mike McCarthy knows the importance of trying to establish the run, but he knows that running the football will be hard against the Steelers. That's why McCarthy's "big five" receiver package could be the key to the game. The Patriots and Ravens were at the forefront of using three-or-more-receiver sets to attack the Steelers' defense the past few years. The theory is simple and smart. Why run against a defense that gives up only 62.8 yards a game on the ground? Putting three or more receivers on the field forces nose tackle Casey Hampton to go to the sideline. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Steelers have the league's second-lowest quarterback rating (69.1) when offenses use three or more receivers against them. The Packers use at least three receivers on three-quarters of their plays, and Rodgers completes 65.3 percent of his passes and has 25 touchdowns compared with nine interceptions against spread sets.
6. Dangers of the "big five": Those five-receiver formations leave Rodgers only five pass-blockers and six pass-protectors at most. They also leave him vulnerable to the blitzes of linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Harrison and Woodley combined for 20.5 sacks during the regular season. Packers tackles Bryan Bulaga and Chad Clifton have surrendered a combined 19.5 sacks. Woodley will go against Bulaga, who surrendered 11 sacks in 12 starts as a rookie. Rodgers' key in the spread set will be to get his passes out quickly.
|The Steelers brought back Bryant McFadden to bolster their secondary.|
7. Further protection for Rodgers: Rodgers wisely tried a new helmet that was designed to further protect his head. The helmet, although tight and uncomfortable to wear, worked well in preventing him from having a third concussion after a high hit from Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. Will it work in Super Bowl XLV? One of the scary hits from the 2009 meeting between the Steelers and Packers was a first-quarter legal shot by Woodley on Rodgers. Steelers linebackers are taught to aim high instead of launching their bodies below the belts of offensive players. Rodgers is vulnerable to a concussion, and the five-receiver set could leave him exposed to a concussion-inducing hit.
8. Improvements in Big Ben: Ben Roethlisberger has handled Super Bowl Week well. He smiles while answering every question during interview sessions. On the field, Packers defenders know they must try to aim toward Roethlisberger's right shoulder while trying to tackle him because he can use his powerful left arm to fend off potential tacklers. Roethlisberger is going for his third Super Bowl ring. If the game is close, he could be the difference-maker who could win it.
9. Punching it over: One of the problems with a five-receiver offense is that blockers have a tougher time converting goal-line runs and short-yardage plays. Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall scored 12 touchdowns on runs inside the 5-yard line during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Packers rookie James Starks is still learning how to be a featured back, but the Packers are just average when they need a yard or two in running situations.
10. No script for the Packers: Most teams script their first 15 offensive players. The Packers don't. McCarthy and Rodgers work on a "first idea" system in which they think about what they might do during the week and make the calls during the first quarter of games. Surprisingly, the Steelers did a better job of scoring off first drives during the regular season. They scored 27 points on opening drives, ranking 15th in the league. The Packers were tied for 18th with 23. Sometimes, it's hard to get off to fast starts offensively in Super Bowls because of the nerves and pressures of the game. The other potential problem facing Rodgers is using the Super Bowl football, which has a painted spot that often causes problems for quarterbacks. Rodgers doesn't think it will be a problem, but he can't know for sure. Roethlisberger has been through two Super Bowl games, so it shouldn't be an issue for him.
|Aaron Rodgers' new helmet might have protected him from another concussion when he took a high hit from Julius Peppers in the NFC Championship Game. |
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.