No labor dispute, snowy Super Bowl destination nor personal disappointment in one’s team will dampen Super Bowl XLV from being one for the ages. While I’m picking the Packers, I think this is a close enough match-up that there are potential storylines where either team ends up getting rings.
What Green Bay has to do to win:
1. Finish with the pass rush. This one is totally obvious: Big Ben is difficult to bring down. Their best bet is to not go for pump fakes and hope they can tip the ball, sack him or that more Packers will help them. Their defense has gotten better since the last time they faced Ben Roethlisberger. That was the only game in 2009 in which any QB had over 500 yards passing (Roethlisberger with 503) but he did get sacked a whopping 5 times.
2. Get physical with the Pittsburgh wide receivers. Mike Wallace is by far the top target on the Steelers (502 more receiving yards than the next guy), but if Woodson, Williams, Shields and Bishop can take away the quick reads and short routes, it would go great distances to helping the pass rush out.
3. Score quick. If Pittsburgh is able to churn up from 20 to 20, it may seem like a victory to hold them to just a field goal or even get a turnover on some of those drives. However, it would be nice for a team that is well-suited for the spread and practices it regularly, to come out “no huddle” on at least one drive because even if the Packers defense is “bend not break”, long drives on defense limit the number of drives they give the Packers offense.
4. Play stout special teams. It will be difficult (maybe worsened by that scoreboard) for Green Bay punter Tim Masthay to replicate the virtuoso masterpiece he put on at the Championship Game (5 of his 8 punts landed inside the Bear 20). The Packers have been burned at times for big returns in the punting game. The Steelers have allowed an NFL-high five kick returns for touchdowns over the last two seasons.
5. Maintain excellent hands and catch radius in the secondary. Ben sometimes has a bad throw here or there. Make him suffer for it.
What Pittsburgh has to do to win:
1. Execute in the red zone, particularly on defense. In the Super Bowl, you gotta make every red zone trip count on offense, but you especially need to hold Green Bay to field goals or risk Ben needing to drop back behind a patchwork line and put the ball in the air a bunch of times. When you ask any quarterback to do that, the risk is high. The Steelers had a 48.9% touchdown rate in the red zone in the regular season and have been even better than that in the playoffs. They have scored touchdowns on 6 of their 8 red zone appearances.
2. Win the turnover battle. Mike Tomlin is 27-3 in regular and postseason when his team has the turnover edge. Given that this game is on turf – and Aaron Rodgers has the best QB rating indoors over his last 11 indoor games – they might need some equalizers in the form of fumbles, interceptions, safeties (ironically, Pittsburgh is the only team to give up two postseason safeties over the last three seasons) or a 4th down stop.
3. Create holes for Rashard Mendenhall. This is what makes this game so intriguing. On one side, you have a top 5 quarterback in Aaron Rodgers with the best receiving corps in football (since Cam Cameron doesn’t want to use his). On the other side, you have a potentially top 5, easily top 10 quarterback and a top 5 running back in Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall was invaluable last week against the Jets, helping them run off much of the first half’s clock. He has 3 rushing TDs in two career playoff games.
4. Protect Ben Roethlisberger. You would think this would be higher on the list, but Ben is the best in the NFL at escaping from pressure. It is crucial, though, because of the many ways that Dom Capers will blitz and the fact that if the offense goes back 6-10 yards on a sack, it could end a drive and give better field position to the Packers on their next drive.
5. Be disciplined in your assignments. Green Bay likes to come out in three-back sets, the inverted wishbone. They’ve also been using a lot of 5 receiver sets, “Big Five” as McCarthy calls it, since 2007. Because I think both Matt Flynn and Aaron Rodgers can execute this offense so well, getting hits on Rodgers to try to physically force him out of the game isn’t as important as making plays in general on defense.