Super Bowl XLV has such an intriguing web of plots, subplots and angles that it has more in common with a well scripted movie than the outcome of 522 football games over the course of the last six months.
Two historic and legendary franchises, the two oldest non-relocated teams in the league, two teams with rabid well-traveling fan bases, a franchise quarterback fallen from grace on the path to redemption, another franchise quarterback trying to emerge from the shadow of a legend, two of the most creative defensive minds in the game going against two of the most explosive receiving corps in the game. Each defense lead by potential Hall of Famers in the secondary teamed up with ferocious pass rushers at linebacker. Sprinkle in a monstrous beard and an improbable and ridiculous 350 lb endzone dance from the respective defensive lines and this game has it all.
In a lot of ways these two teams are mirror images of each other and that will factor heavily into the outcome, but there are also differences, some subtle and some obvious, that should end up deciding the game.
Defensively, both teams share a number of traits the biggest of which is scheme. Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers not only run the 3-4 defense, but they run a version that they created together. The Steelers have Troy Polamalu as the focal point of their defense while the Packers use Charles Woodson in that role. The Steelers have Casey Hampton as their larger than life nose tackle that clogs running lanes and the Packers have BJ Raji playing that part. The Steelers have James Harrison as their main cog in the pass rush and the Packers counter with Clay Matthews. The Steelers have LaMarr Woodley as the pass rushing bookend and the Packers have…Frank Zombo and Erik Walden.
The first factor that I focus on is the advantage having twin pass rushing threats gives the Steelers. Clay Matthews is a great pass rusher, but wherever he lines up is where the Packers pass rush is going to come from. The Steelers have the luxury of mixing up their pass rush because they have two very capable pass rushers outside and better linebackers inside. The Steelers have Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior who comprise one of the best middle linebacking corps of any 3-4 defense in the league. The Packers have AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop who are not anywhere near the top of the list. Desmond Bishop had a breakout year and is on his way to being one of the better linebackers in the league, but AJ Hawk is a colossal weakness in the middle of the Packers’ defense.
That brings me to difference number two on the defense. The Packers used to hide AJ Hawk’s deficiencies by rotating him out in situations he struggled in, but due to the injury to Brandon Chillar, the Packers have had to hide his weaknesses on the field. The Steelers front seven doesn’t have a weak link, while the Packers’ does. Everybody credited Kurt Warner for shredding the Packers’ defense last year in the playoffs, but the more appropriate focus would have been to rip AJ Hawk and Nick Barnett’s horrific play in coverage. The Cardinals attacked the middle of the field in the passing game because neither player could cover a dime with a bed sheet in that game. Bishop is a huge improvement over Barnett, but Hawk is still a liability, which is why the Packers frequently shift to one or two down lineman in passing situations and bring in extra linebackers or defensive backs. The extra speed helps in coverage and causes more confusion for the quarterback to identify who is rushing and who is covering. That makes it more difficult to single out the weakness.
The Packers’ weakness in the linebacking corps also forces their hand in the running game because they have difficulty shedding blocks. The Packers shift to a three defensive tackle formation on obvious running downs to help keep blockers off the linebackers.
The Steelers can play a variety of schemes with their base personnel, which makes it easier to disguise and mix up their playcalls. The Steelers aren’t forced to show their hand with substitution packages like the Packers do.
Offensively, the Packers have Aaron Rodgers as their athletic and elusive franchise quarterback with a rocket arm and the Steelers have Ben Roethlisberger who isn’t as elusive, but is equally difficult to sack because of his size and strength. Both quarterbacks are tough to rush and both can buy time in the pocket and get the ball downfield. I give a small edge to the Steelers in the quarterback matchup because if the Steelers can hem Rodgers in and not give him room to run he is much easier to pressure. Roethlisberger is just so big that even if a defender has a clean shot at him, they may not be able to get him down. The Packers’ most effective blitzes against the Bears saw them bring cornerbacks and safeties, those will not be as effective against Roethlisberger.
The biggest difference between the two teams comes in the running game where the Steelers ranked 11th in the league in rushing and 1st in run defense. While that is a decided edge over the Packers’ 24th ranked rushing offense and their 18th ranked rushing defense, the Packers rushing offense is much different now that James Starks has taken the starting role. Starks gives the Packers a slashing physical runner to pair with the bruising John Kuhn and receiving threat Brandon Jackson.
Despite Starks’ success, I believe Jackson is the key player in the Packers’ backfield. The Packers have two main options when preparing for the blitz, keep extra blockers in to protect, or leak the backs and tight ends out behind the blitzers and attack the defense with the short passing game. If the Packers go that route, Jackson is their most dangerous weapon out of the backfield.
The Packers have the edge on the offensive line mostly because they are healthy and the Steelers will be without Maurkice Pouncey. Neither line is great, but they each have familiarity with the defense they are facing which will give each line a little boost.
The Packers and Steelers both have deep receiving corps and the Packers have the size advantage while the Steelers have the speed advantage. Green Bay has one of the better big play threats in Greg Jennings and one of the best possession receivers in Donald Driver. The Steelers have Mike Wallace and Hines Ward in those roles. The Packers have the 6’3” 217 lb Jordy Nelson and 6’1” 208 lb James Jones behind Jennings and Driver, while the Steelers have the smaller 5’10 186 lb Antonio Brown, 5’11” 180 lb Emmanuel Sanders and the 5’10” 185 lb Antwaan Randle El. Both receiving corps can make the tough catches over the middle and both have players that can stretch the field. The Steelers have the speed edge, but their speedsters are young and inexperienced while the Packers receiving corps are all seasoned veterans.
Prediction: I believe the game will be a little higher scoring than people predict because of the familiarity that both teams have with each other’s defense. Two dynamics that I think favor the Steelers are experience and coaching. The majority of the Steelers roster already has Super Bowl rings from two years ago, while many of the veteran players have two rings. The Steelers know what to expect and how to react to all the distractions and emotions of the Super Bowl. The Packers are a very young and inexperienced team and that can be a positive or a negative. They can be young enough that the pressure does not daunt them or they can be caught off guard by the enormity of the situation and it can take them out of their comfort zone. Mike Tomlin has coached in a Super Bowl before and he has a knack for knowing when to roll the dice and when to play conservatively. Mike McCarthy is an incredibly risk averse coach who has had difficulty altering his gameplan if it is not working. He also has a tendency to try too hard to outsmart people when his team could just lineup and outplay their opponents.
If you look at the last three Super Bowls, all three have been defined by moments that shifted the momentum in favor of the winners. Aggressive coaching was the impetus behind those moments. The Giants had to decide if they wanted to sit back and try to contain the record breaking Patriots passing game, or attack it and get Brady out of his comfort zone. Pair that with the aggressive shot down the field that resulted in a catch for the ages by David Tyree and that gave the Giants the upset over the heavily favored Patriots. Dick LeBeau called a blitz on the goaline that resulted in the longest interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl history and turned the tide in Super Bowl XLIII. Last year the Onside Kick Heard Round the World changed the entire complexion of the game and fueled the Saints’ upset over the Colts.
I have not seen anything from the Packers in the last two seasons that demonstrated the ability to create those game and momentum altering moments. The Packers’ inexperience also leaves them ill prepared to bounce back from one of those momentous plays, which gives the Steelers the edge in my eyes. As a result, I am going to predict the Steelers join the Patriots in the three Championships in the 2000’s Club on Sunday.