It was not too long ago that the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers were battling for football supremacy in Super Bowl XLV. Now the two teams are hanging on for their playoff lives as they approach their Week 16 matchup.
If Rodgers doesn’t play, Matt Flynn will look to build upon his four-touchdown performance last week against the Dallas Cowboys. Needless to say, Pittsburgh’s secondary will be tested regardless of who is under center.
The Steelers are coming off a big win against the Cincinnati Bengals, in what was one of their most complete team efforts of the season. They will need a similar performance if they want to come out of Green Bay with a victory.
Here is a look at the key individual matchups to watch on Sunday.
Ben Roethlisberger has been playing the best football of his career over the last month and a half and his numbers should continue to improve as he goes against a vulnerable Green Bay secondary.
Green Bay ranks 22nd in the league with nearly 253 passing yards allowed per game and has allowed 26 touchdowns through the air.
Roethlisberger has thrown for over 279 yards per game and has 25 touchdowns, including 12 over the past five games. During this time he has only one interception.
However, Green Bay has five interceptions in the last three games and wants to add to that total against Roethlisberger.
Among the team leaders in interceptions is Tramon Williams. Williams is tied with Sam Shields with three interceptions this season but has all three over the last five weeks. Prior to the start of the season, Williams was identified as a top 10 cornerback over the past five years by Pro Football Focus.
He will be a defender that Roethlisberger must identify and take caution with when throwing in his direction.
Expect Roethlisberger to get his yards through the air, but he will be at risk of adding an interception to his total as Packer defensive backs have been on a hot streak as of late.
The Steelers did not expect Kelvin Beachum to start when they drafted him in the seventh round two years ago. They certainly didn’t expect him to start entering this season, as they groomed him to be a backup at every position on the line.
How quickly things changed as injuries and poor performance by others forced Beachum into the starting lineup at the most prominent position on the line—left tackle.
By no means has Beachum been dominant at the position, but he has helped keep Roethlisberger on his feet over the last month of action. The line has allowed just four sacks in the last four games after allowing 36 in the first 10.
During this time, Beachum has faced some top pass-rushers—including Terrell Suggs—and has performed well. He will have one of his toughest tests this week as he matches up against Clay Matthews.
Matthews has not been as dominant this season with just 6.5 sacks, but he is always a threat to get to the quarterback. Whether it is a sack or a forced fumble, the Steelers need to prevent the Packers defense from coming up with big plays if they want to compete.
Sunday may be a high-scoring shootout in Green Bay, and Beachum will an integral part in providing Roethlisberger enough time to pick apart the Packers’ secondary.
Alright, so these two players won’t exactly go head-to-head against each other, but whoever has the better performance will give their team an edge.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters in his press conference this week that selecting Le’Veon Bell over Eddie Lacy was “an easy decision for me,” via NFL.com. It’s not that he did not like Lacy, he just saw Bell as a better fit with his potential as a receiver as well as a runner.
So far Lacy has proven to be the better runner with 1,028 rushing yards, which leads all rookies. Bell has had an up-and-down season and averages just 3.3 yards per carry, well below Lacy’s 4.1 average.
Bell has the edge in receiving, as he ranks sixth among all rookies with 43 receptions and averages 9.0 yards per reception. Lacy has been no slouch in this area, as he has caught 31 balls for an average of 7.6 yards per reception.
The difference is that Lacy has been carrying the load on the ground for the Packers, logging nine games with at least 20 carries. If he approaches 20 to 25 carries on Sunday, that means that he is producing against Pittsburgh’s defensive front seven, and that will help open up the Packers’ offense.
Bell has had 20 or more carries in only three games this season and has yet to break 100 yards rushing in a game. However, he has at least 80 all-purpose yards in each of his last eight games and has broken 100 total yards twice over the past three weeks.
Bell has looked better each week and could be due for a breakout game. That could happen this week as two of the top rookie running backs match up.
Pittsburgh’s secondary had struggled for much of the past month, having been shredded by a number of tight ends and receivers, including Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson, Danny Amendola, Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon, Torrey Smith and Charles Clay.
Looking at this group, three New England players put up over 100 receiving yards against Pittsburgh’s secondary and two players—Johnson and Gordon—had over 200 receiving yards.
The secondary seemed to finally get it together last week against the Bengals in limiting A.J. Green to 93 yards on nine receptions, with many of those coming against a soft defense.
Things won’t get any easier this weekend as Packer wide receiver Jordy Nelson provides his quarterbacks with a big downfield target against Pittsburgh cornerbacks.
Unlike previous years when Ike Taylor would match up against the opponent’s top receiver, Dick LeBeau had Taylor and Cortez Allen share the duty of stopping Green last week. Expect a similar tandem approach against Nelson.
Both cornerbacks are big and physical and have the ability defend the big-bodied Nelson.
Nelson leads the Packers in receptions (72), yards (1,107) and touchdowns (eight). He is a big-play receiver with 18 receptions of 20 yards or more and has 50 receptions for first downs.
Plays of 20 yards or more have plagued the Steelers all season, and the Packers will look to exploit this weakness as they will surely attack Taylor and Allen. Nelson has receptions of 20 yards or more in 12 of 14 games this season.
Taylor and Allen will be key in preventing against the big plays again this weekend. As long as they do, the Steelers' defense will be able to play to its strengths and give Pittsburgh a chance to win.