Super Bowl XLV: Matchups to Watch
Here’s what to look for when Green Bay and Pittsburgh meet again on Sunday:
When Green Bay has the ball...
The Packers’ offense has relied on the success of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was first in the NFC in passer rating (101.2) and yards per attempt (8.26). Even with a strong quarterback in Rodgers, though, their regular game plan is not as pass-heavy as one would expect. In fact, they finished the season 16th in the league in pass attempts.
James Starks has carried much of the running workload in the playoffs, but he has only been mildly successful (3.8 average yards per carry) in the postseason. Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz defense represents a juggernaut in stopping the run, led by defensive player of the year Troy Polamalu. The Steelers were the best in the league in defensive yards per carry (3.0) and rushing yards allowed per game (62.8). Expect the front seven to frustrate Green Bay’s running attack enough that it is forced to rely on moving the ball through the air, even if the Packers get an early lead.
It will be interesting to see whether or not veteran left tackle Chad Clifton and rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga (both of whom have been average this season) can slow down Pittsburgh’s sack machines: James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. If Rodgers gets time to throw, he can target a multitude of receivers in Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson, even if the Steelers' underrated top corner Ike Taylor neutralizes Greg Jennings.
The one time Pittsburgh’s very strong pass defense (tops in the league at 6.3 yards per attempt) was over-matched this season was in Week 10 against New England. The Patriots’ line did not allow a sack, giving Tom Brady time to attack Pittsburgh’s secondary for 30 completions and 350 yards en route to a 39-26 win.
There’s a dirty little secret about Ben Roethlisberger’s championship season in 2008: he just wasn’t very good. Sure, Roethlisberger made the plays needed in the postseason, but his 2008 regular season was pedestrian at best (60 percent completion percentage, 17 TD, 15 INT).
That wasn’t the case this year. After serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s player conduct policy, Ben came out firing. He had an incredibly efficient season, finishing with a 17-5 TD-INT ratio and averaging 8.2 yards per attempt, good for third in the NFL. He has taken full advantage of receiver Mike Wallace’s big play ability.
For the third straight game this postseason, Big Ben faces a top-notch pass defense. Green Bay ranked second in the NFC, allowing just 6.5 yards per attempt and 194.2 yards per game. Still, Roethlisberger held his own against the Ravens' D and made plays with his feet to beat the Jets, with more carries (11) than completions (10).
The problem for the Steelers will be keeping Ben upright. Baltimore sacked him a season-high six times and the Packers' pass rush is the best in the NFC, led by outside linebacker Clay Matthews’s 13.5 sacks. Pittsburgh’s line is filled with injury replacements, and nose tackle B.J. Raji will cause havoc if Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey can’t go.
The key for Pittsburgh will be to ride running back Rashard Mendenhall as much as possible, after he went for 121 yards on 27 carries in the AFC Championship game despite a weak O-line. Green Bay’s mediocre run defense, which ranked 28th in the NFL, allowing 4.7 yards per carry, represents a weak spot that the Steelers can take advantage of.
Pittsburgh’s command of the ground game will also allow them to control the time of possession, keeping Rodgers off the field as much as possible.
Overall, both teams are average on special teams, though Pittsburgh has vastly improved its kickoff coverage after its 2009 unit was one of the worst in league history.
Neither side has playmakers in the return game, although Pittsburgh rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders is capable of giving the Steelers good field position on kick returns.
Packers’ kicker Mason Crosby was average this season and in the playoffs, going 24-for-31 on field goals. Shaun Suisham has been very good for Pittsburgh, making 16 out of 18 field goals since replacing Jeff Reed mid-season. Both should be more reliable under the roof of Cowboys Stadium than in their cold, windy home stadiums.
Tim Masthay of Green Bay and injury replacement Jeremy Kapinos of Pittsburgh are both mediocre punters, neither is likely to shift the field position greatly in what could be a tight defensive game.
Don’t underestimate the experience of the Steelers team heading into Sunday. 26 of the 42 players who appeared for Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII are still with the team, including the entire 2008 starting defense. Players are often awestruck by the Super Spectacle early in the game before settling down, but that shouldn’t be a problem for the Steelers (and coach Mike Tomlin), who have experienced the thrills and butterflies before.
Official prediction: Steelers 20, Packers 17
James Santelli is also a contributor for Pittsburgh Sports Report.