On Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers will play in Super Bowl XLV. These two teams are statistically close across the board. On defense, they are even closer philosophically. This means that the prospects for a great game are strong. Most fans, current and former players, and the media expect a classic. The razor-thin comparisons between these teams abound. I wrote an exhaustive comparison of Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. There isn’t much difference there. The story of the evolution of the zone-blitzing 3-4 defense has been told and retold for weeks. Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers are as thick as thieves. There isn’t much difference inside the minds behind these defenses.
My pick. Pittsburgh 31, Green Bay 26.
Most of what these teams have done is likely going to be irrelevant once the game begins. I believe most of the stats can be dismissed. I don’t believe that the Steelers Super Bowl experience will count for much. I don’t believe that any of the Packers, except for James Jones, is likely to drop a number of passes — but he does that during the regular season. I think the Packers and Steelers will simply bring it.Steelers Keys to the Game. Rashard Mendenhall. This season, Mendenhall became just the second player in NFL history to run for 4 touchdowns in a single season vs. the Baltimore Ravens. Over the past two weeks, Mendenhall has provided the Steelers with consistency and power on the ground. The Packers have a highly-acclaimed defense that allowed 4.7 yards per carry this season. In two games against teams that prefer to pass, the Packers were almost perfect. Against the Falcons, Matt Ryan played a bit too much like Joe Flacco and fell behind by making mistake after mistake. Michael Turner never had a chance. Mendenhall is the best defense against Aaron Rodgers and four elite wide receivers. After watching Heath Miller (best 2-way tight end in the business?) push David Harris and Bart Scott and Bryan Thomas all over the field, the Packers should be concerned here. Miller is also dangerous as a receiver. In 2009, he lit the Packers up with 7 catches and over 100 yards.
Defensive Innovation. The Packers are tough to stop, but anything is possible. I believe that given the Steelers personnel, one of the best ways to slow down the Packers passing game is to consistently play 3 deep coverages that prevent the Packers from making big plays over the top of the defense. The Steelers can mask the 3-deep coverage a thousand different ways. They can use their base 3-4 personnel; they can play nickel or dime sets; they can even use a 2-4-5 alignment. Whatever they do, they need to make it unattractive for Rodgers to make deep throws. The Steelers should mix zone and man coverages; they should disguise blitzes…but they should borrow from the previous paradigms laid out by the Patriots vs. the 2001 Rams; and this season by the Jets and Bears vs. the Packers. Take away the deep throws. Make the Packers work for their points.
Win the Turnover Battle. The Packers have had turnovers in 7 straight games. Usually, if the Steelers are even, or win the turnover the battle they win the game. They even have a strong likelihood of winning if they’re -1. Beyond that, the Steelers would be giving the Packers too many chances with the ball; creating too much pressure on their defense; and probably surrendering critical field position in the process.
Play Even or Better on Special Teams. The Steelers have Green Bay’s punter from a year ago. The Packers are much better at this position than a year ago. Mason Crosby is a more reliable kicker than Shaun Suisham. The Packers coverage teams have not been great this season. The Steelers were much better than a year before (and were HUGE against the Jets in the AFC Championship Game), but still surrendered a 97-yard return to Brad Smith late this season.
Play with Power. The Steelers have a heavier defense than the Packers. They also have an older defense. The Steelers are not too old, though I don’t believe they have too many more of these runs left with this crew (Exhibit A: Aaron Smith has been injured in 3 of the last 4 seasons.) Players like Woodley, Harrison, Timmons, and Ryan Clark have developed strong reputations around the league for HITTING. They need to deliver big hits in this game. The Steelers need to be fundamentally sound when they tackle, but the winner of this game is going to be the most physical team on defense. If the Steelers allow the Packers to get comfortable (like they allowed the Patriots to get comfortable), they will lose. The Steelers need to bring the fight to the Packers.
Disrespectful Respect. The Packers have talent. It’s why they’re favored to win the game. The Steelers have rings and a better record. They should just remember that their opponent is very good. Bring a healthy respect for your opponent to the game; then knock his damn head off.
Packers Keys to the Game.
Contain Roethlisberger on 3rd down. The Saints and Patriots used dynamic blitz approaches to beat the Steelers this season. Against New Orleans, the Steelers only scored 10 points. Against New England, the Steelers trailed 23-3 before fighting back to 39-26. Over the second half of the season, only New England scored more points and Pittsburgh averaged 28.5 points per game. Beating the Steelers is all about containing Roethlisberger. Everyone gets sacks on him…but getting off the field on 3rd down will be the key.
Take what the Defense Gives You. The Steelers shut down the Arizona Cardinals in the first half of the 2008 Super Bowl. The Cardinals adjusted, albeit a little too late, and opened the floodgates in the second half. The Steelers cannot take away every option from Rodgers. Take the options that are available. Don’t force it.
Don’t let Harrison or Polamalu Beat You. If you do, you’ll never live it down. Make the other guys on the defense make plays. The Packers don’t need to avoid Harrison or Polamalu, but they need to put their players in a position to win those battles. Coaches must have schemes that adequately deal with the two men who have won 2 of the last 3 Defensive Player of the Year awards. Make James Farrior or Ryan Clark or William Gay or Ryan Mundy beat you. They might do it, but the odds are considerably less.
Get Your Carries. Yards per carry don’t matter. Staying on schedule doesn’t matter either — because you don’t have a dink and dunk offense. You can convert 3rd and long. Don’t let the down and distance influence how often you run the ball. If you eschew the run and Starks and Kuhn don’t get carries, you will lose. Twelve Super Bowl teams have gone against this conventional wisdom and wound up throwing the ball more than 45 times in a game. Ten of them lost. Two won: the 2003 New England Patriots also ran the ball more than 35 times and dominated the clock vs. the Carolina Panthers; the 1999 Rams were pass happy against a Tennessee Titans teams operating without safeties Blaine Bishop and Marcus Robertson. They both won by the narrowest of margins. It’s wiser to hand the ball off, regardless of the outcome.
Move Greg Jennings Around. If you leave him on Ike Taylor all day in the same place, Taylor is going to win some of those battles. In two games against Santonio Holmes, Taylor slipped once (and surrendered a TD). Otherwise, he kept everything in front of him for 8 quarters. Taylor doesn’t catch well, but he’s an excellent man coverage corner. If he had hands, he’d have been a household name 5 years ago. If you go to drink in his well too often, you will drown.
Use that Screen Game. Let everyone get a little love in the screen game: Starks, Kuhn, Nelson, Jones, Driver, Quarless…everybody. Left, right, middle, bubble…use it all.
Execution over Penalties. The Packers are 4-6 in games decided by 7 points or less. Show the world you’ve learned how to execute.
That is all.