As a resident of Pittsburgh and a native of Wisconsin, I have been indoctrinated as both a fan of the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Luckily for me, these two teams play in different conferences and rarely meet, so I can almost always root for both teams without much contradiction. They have only played each other 26 times dating back to 1940, and the game on Sunday, December 20th, will be only their second regular season match-up in 10 years.
But in my relatively unique situation, I have come to realize how similar these two franchises have become in 2009. In fact, the Packers have much to owe Pittsburgh for their recent success, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
So even though the game at Heinz Field on Sunday will get a lot of hype due to the current Wildcard prospects for both teams, there is a lot more to this story than meets the eye.
FROM "TITLETOWN" TO "SIXBURGH"
When you look at the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, it's hard not to think about their reputations as championship teams. After all, both teams have set some historic precedents with their past dynasties.
The Green Bay Packers of the 1960's won five NFL championships over a seven year period under legendary head coach Vince Lombardi. These five titles concluded with the wins in Super Bowls I and II. From this success was eventually born the nickname "Titletown, USA," which the city of Green Bay boasts on its official seal. Additionally, the Super Bowl trophy awarded to winning teams was renamed to commemorate Vince Lombardi after his sudden death in 1970.
Meanwhile, the 1970's Pittsburgh Steelers under head coach Chuck Noll became the first team to win more than two Super Bowls, as well as the only team to win four Super Bowls in six years. Along with the championship successes of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pitt Panthers, the Steelers helped define Pittsburgh as the "City of Champions" during that decade.
Now, after winning Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers lay claim to the most Vince Lombardi Trophies, with six. This, of course, prompted the nickname "Sixburgh" to boast their new NFL record. The Packers, meanwhile, continue to hold the record for the most national football championships of any team, with nine NFL Championships and three Super Bowls wins.
Both teams will be looking to defend their historic reputations in this week's match-up. The Packers are currently riding a five-game winning streak, while the Steelers are looking to break their five-game losing streak. And each of them will have something to prove on Sunday.
Since Mike McCarthy became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 2006, he has professed his desire to make the team tougher and more physical. That type of philosophy is not rare in the NFL by any stretch; however, it seems very fitting for a man who calls Pittsburgh his home.
In 1963, Mike McCarthy was born in Greenfield, PA, as one of five children to a man who made his career as a firefighter and police office. Needless to say, McCarthy learned discipline and pragmatism at an early age. His father, Joe, also owned a bar near a Pittsburgh steel mill, where McCarthy worked odd jobs as a teen.
According to his biography on Packers.com , "it was interacting with the hard-working tavern clientele while also watching a father in uniform dedicated to public service that helped make McCarthy proud of where he came from."
After serving as the graduate assistant coach at Fort Hays State (1987-1988), Mike McCarthy was hired to work under Paul Hackett at the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as quarterbacks coach (1989-1991) before coaching wide receivers during the 1992 season. His NFL career began when he followed Hackett to the Kansas City Chiefs as a quality control assistant.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that McCarthy prompted a switch to the 3-4 defense and hired Dom Capers as defensive coordinator. He grew up during the era of the "Steel Curtain" and was leaving his tenure at Pitt when the "Blitzburgh" defense was just beginning to roll. Who could have picked a better team to show him the importance of a hard-nosed, dominating defense than the Steelers?
So when Mike McCarthy takes his team into the Steel City on Sunday, he will get a chance to show his hometown the football lessons he’s taken with him. For as he stated after the Ravens game in Week 13, "It starts with our defense. That's the face of our football team."
REAL MEN OF (DEFENSIVE) GENIUS
One of the top stories for this weekend will undoubtedly be the reunion of defensive masterminds Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau. In 1992, these two coaches joined forces with Bill Cowher and Marvin Lewis in Pittsburgh to blaze the trail for arguably the most dominant defense in the past two decades.
Even though Bill Cowher and the Steelers' defensive staff did not invent the basic 3-4 scheme, they made it their own. LeBeau was tasked with finalizing the product that would be given to the players, and it was his "zone blitz" stamp of success that became the icing on the cake.
Dick LeBeau, however, is no stranger to the Green Bay Packers team, despite coaching primarily the AFC's Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, where he first invented the zone blitz. LeBeau spent his 14-year NFL playing career as a defensive back for the Detroit Lions (1959-1972). In that time span, he made 62 career interceptions for 762 return yards and 3 touchdowns, and holds the NFL record for consecutive game appearances for a cornerback with 171. As of 2009, LeBeau is a nominee for seniors' spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010.
But LeBeau had a little more to do with the Packers than just playing against them for 14 years. From 1976-1979, he served as the defensive backfield coach for Green Bay under head coach and future Pro Football Hall of Fame QB Bart Starr. In his first season Willie Buchanon, Johnnie Gray, Steve Luke and Steve Perry combined for 10 interceptions.
Fast forward 30 years later and Dom Capers is the man behind the Green Bay Packers defense. To say that he has been successful in transitioning the unit to a 3-4 defensive scheme is an understatement. After only 13 regular season games, the Packers allow an average of 272.0 total yards per game (2nd), 187.0 passing yards per game (3rd), 85.0 rushing yards per game (2nd), and lead the league in turnover differential (+18).
The Packers also have one more ace up their sleeve this year with outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene on the staff. After starting his heralded career with the Los Angeles Rams, Greene signed a 3-year deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1993. Known for his fiery, aggressive play, Greene earned two Pro Bowl selections while with the Steelers and played in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys. In 1996, Greene followed Capers to the Carolina Panthers, where he lost the NFC Championship Game to the Packers. Now, as a coach for Green Bay, he has been instilling in his players the same fire he once had on the field.
Out of all the teams in the NFL to employ the 3-4 defense, the only other team to employ the Cowher/LeBeau/Capers system is the Arizona Cardinals, which makes the bond between the Steelers and the Packers defenses this year even stronger. Green Bay definitely owes "Blitzburgh" a lot of credit for how far they have come this season, especially considering the quick turn-around from last year’s miserable performances.
SACKING THE CRITICS
It should come as no surprise to Steelers or Packers fans that Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers currently lead the league in sacks at 38 and 47, respectively. And while many people can point to the weak offensive line play on both of these teams, there is one other reason for these numbers that both quarterbacks are guilty of:
Holding on to the football to try to extend plays.
Recently, "Big Ben" Roethlisberger has taken more heat for this after his eight-sack day at Cleveland last week, but earlier in the season, Aaron Rodgers was the undisputed king of making his offensive line work overtime.
Through the first eight games of the season, Rodgers averaged 4.6 sacks per game. His worst game in that time span was at Minnesota with eight sacks. His best game? Zero sacks at Cleveland in Week 7. Since the game at Tampa Bay, however, Rodgers has only averaged two sacks per game – a clear improvement.
Roethlisberger, on the other hand, is a little more consistent with his sacks. Since Week 1, he has averaged 3.2 sacks per game. Only twice has he been sacked in a game only once – never going without a sack in any game so far. But only once has he been sacked more than 4 times in a single game: at Cleveland in Week 14.
Some have argued that the ability to successfully extend the play has saved drives more than they have killed them. Other would argue that taking sacks on such plays has been more detrimental to the offense.
Either way, it is hard to dispute the mobility of these two quarterbacks and their successes outside the pocket when they can escape the pressure. In this respect, these two young quarterbacks are fairly similar in their approach to the passing play.
ODDS AND ENDS
Here are a few miscellaneous facts about some of the bonds between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh:
- Towards the beginning of the 2008 season, ESPN released its "NFL Fan Base Rankings ." The top two teams on the list? You guessed it: the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers.
- Darren Perry , current safeties coach for the Green Bay Packers, began his NFL career when the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him as an eighth round pick (203rd overall) in 1992. Perry played as a Safety for the Steelers until 1998, and was their first rookie since 1955 to lead the team in interceptions. His 32 career interceptions from those seven years are tied for seventh in Pittsburgh history. Prior to joining the coaching staff at Green Bay, Perry also served as defensive backs coach for Pittsburgh from 2004-2006.
- Scott McCurley , current defensive quality control coach for the Green Bay Packers, was born in New Castle, PA, and went to high school in Bessemer, which lies not far from the city of Pittsburgh. While McCurley never had any affiliation with the Steelers organization, he did enjoy a lengthy playing and coaching career at the University of Pittsburgh. After playing as linebacker from 1999-2002, McCurley remained with the program as a defensive graduate assistant.
- Packers FB John Kuhn was signed to the Steelers' practice squad on November 30, 2005, which earned him a Super Bowl ring after the Steelers beat the Seahawks in Super bowl XL. He was re-signed for the following season but was cut after training camp. He was eventually signed to the Steelers' active roster on October 31, 2006, and appeared in nine games for them. The Green Bay Packers signed Kuhn the day after being released by the Steelers in 2007.
- Steelers TE Sean McHugh made his NFL debut with the Packers in their 2004 game at Carolina, but only played that one game for them. He signed next with the Detroit Lions, who later released him at the end of their 2008 training camp – the same season they went 0-16. Ironically, the Steelers signed McHugh that same season, and he ended up with a ring for their Super Bowl XL victory.
After taking a look at the relationship between these two teams at this point in their storied histories, the game on Sunday should be that much more exciting. Their past together as franchises might be lacking, but in 2009, the current members of these organizations will make this a game to remember.