James Starks run against the Bears in the NFC Championship Game last Sunday
The Steelers and Packers both had run-heavy 2011 seasons, and last Sunday Rashard Mendenhall and James Starks continued to pound out yards for their respective teams.
When they meet in the Super Bowl, it will be the battle for rushing yards that determines the victor.
While both teams have big-name quarterbacks, the running game has defined both teams thus far this season—the teams were third and fourth in rushing in this year's NFL postseason.
Mendenhall and Starks come from different backgrounds (Mendenhall was a first-round pick who has been the feature back for the last two years, while Starks was a sixth-round rookie who had 29 total carries in the regular season and scored his first NFL touchdown in the NFC Championship Game).
Both players will have the weight of Super Bowl expectations upon their shoulders when the prime-time lights finally hit.
Starks spent significant time on the PUP list this season, and it was Brandon Jackson who got the starts after Ryan Grant went down early in the season.
When Starks was finally activated Dec. 5 against the San Francisco 49ers, he began to mount his claim to the starting job. In the NFC Championship Game, Jackson’s role was reduced to a meager two carries.
Mendenhall was one of the best backs in the NFL all season scoring 13 touchdowns and averaging over 70 yards per game.
Although each back has taken a different road to Dallas, the final game will not be easy. The battle between the running games is so essential to this game because of the success each team has had defending the run.
In addition to top-five rushing offenses in this postseason, Pittsburgh boasts the stoutest rushing defense in the league this postseason, closely followed by runner-up Green Bay.
Running backs will not have all the glory in this game. While the game may eventually come down to the arms of the biggest names on the field in Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers, the success of each quarterback will be determined, in large part, by the ability of each top-rushing postseason offense to establish itself against each of the league’s top two postseason rushing defenses.
In the Super Bowl, teams play to their own strengths. The losing team wants to go home knowing it lost the same way it won all year. This year, both teams will try to establish an identity on the ground before going to the air.
Whichever team has more success setting up the pass will win the Lombardi trophy.