Super Bowl XLV Prediction: Why Steelers' Success Will Trump Packers' Momentum
On Sunday, Feb. 6, two of the NFL’s most storied franchises will be pitted against each other at the new Cowboys Stadium in Super Bowl XLV. In the two weeks leading up until then, there are too many subplots to discuss in this five-star matchup of teams that have combined for an astounding 18 league titles.
The Steelers may have an all-time high six Lombardi Trophies to their name, but that total only represents half the number of NFL Championships that the Packers have brought home over the course of their history in the league, which predates the Super Bowl all the way back to 1921.
Although these two teams are based in relatively small markets, both Pittsburgh and Green Bay have two of the strongest, most loyal fan bases in the league.
With multiple tales of redemption, injury questions, potential coaching departures, pending free agents, and a virgin Super Bowl setting in a billion-dollar stadium, there will be myriad discussion and speculation about the players and coaches of the Steelers and Packers right up until kickoff.
Tale of Redemption #1: QB Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers may be the hottest quarterback in the NFL right now, but has faced substantial criticism over his career as a starter because of his tendency to lose close games during the regular season, and for the lofty standards set by his predecessor in Titletown.
Although he improved his postseason record to 3-1 with a trio of impressive road victories in January in addition to another exceptional statistical campaign in 2010, Rodgers knows he will need to bring a 13th league championship to Green Bay in order to finally exorcise the Brett Favre demons that have haunted him since he replaced the recently-retired, future Hall-of-Famer three years ago.
Can Rodgers cement his place in Packers’ lore with one final victory in Dallas?
While Rodgers’ recent run of success has been arguably the most talked-about story in the league, his quarterback counterpart has had just as compelling a turnaround since a historically ugly offseason.
Tale of Redemption #2: QB Ben Roethlisberger
Regardless of what did or didn't happen in the most famous bathroom in Milledgeville, Georgia, Roethlisberger has at least proven himself to be a fearless leader and champion on the field since he was selected in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft.
The most recent bout of sexual assault charges that were dropped last April still taints the image of the two-time Super Bowl champ in the court of public opinion, and may follow him his entire career. In terms of punishment from the NFL, however, Roethlisberger fulfilled his four-game suspension (lowered from what was initially six games) handed down by Commissioner Roger Goodell at the beginning of the regular season.
The Steeler has proven to be both one of the game’s toughest quarterbacks in recent memory, as well as one of its most dangerous playmakers that can beat opponents downfield with his arm, or drag linebackers with his legs. However, the Packers boast one of the NFL’s top secondaries, coupled with an intrepid front seven, and will test Big Ben to the fullest extent of his abilities on Feb. 6.
As this game could be too close to be decided by the quarterbacks involved, the winner of Super Bowl XLV could be decided by the unlikeliest of heroes, a special teams castoff that is playing for his third team in three years...
Tale of Redemption #3: K Shaun Suisham
On Feb. 6, Suisham returns to the stadium of the team that decided against re-signing him at the end of 2009 when he failed to impress in the clutch. Although Suisham’s field-goal percentage has been more than respectable over the last couple of seasons with Washington and Dallas, his inaccuracy tended to manifest at the most inopportune times, and he acquired a reputation for being unreliable with the game on the line.
Pittsburgh grew fed up with slumping K Jeff Reed, and waived the nine-year veteran on Nov. 16. Suisham had been brought into previous Steeler training camps, so both Head Coach Mike Tomlin and special teams coordinator Al Everest were familiar enough with the 29-year-old to sign the maligned kicker after waiving Reed.
Now that Suisham is about to play in the biggest game of his life, he will get to show fans in Big D that he can be a clutch performer, bringing his tale of redemption full-circle back to Cowboys Stadium, where owner Jerry Jones will surely be in attendance.
Matchup Question: Packers Rush Attack Versus Steelers Linebackers
A featured back has emerged in Green Bay’s backfield in James Starks, but he will need help from seldom-used Brandon Jackson and short-yardage fan-favorite John Kuhn to penetrate the vaunted Steel Curtain. Even if all three Packers carry the ball especially well, Pittsburgh is unlikely to be beaten in the Super Bowl via the run, as they’ve allowed just 62 yards per game and five TDs all year long.
The rush attack will likely be reserved for short yardage situations and could be featured in occasional spread formations, so don’t expect former Redskin Timmy Smith to lose sleep over any of the Packer RBs sniffing his Super Bowl-rushing record of 204 yards.
If Green Bay is to continue their dominance over the NFL this postseason, it will likely be the result of the league’s hottest quarterback hitting his downfield targets throughout the match.
Matchup Question: Aaron Rodgers Versus Steelers Secondary
Although the Steelers rank 12th in pass defense, they allowed the third-fewest touchdown passes and collected the fifth-most interceptions in the league during the season. NFL Defensive Player of the Year Troy Polamalu has been battling Achilles and ankle injuries throughout the last few weeks of the regular season, and still isn’t 100 percent recovered. The Steelers are less potent without the safety in the lineup, but the former Trojan should be expected to start with an extra two weeks to heal.
CB William Gay started over an injured Bryant McFadden (abdomen), and rewarded his coaches with a fumble return for a touchdown. Other than the occasional big play, right cornerback is viewed as a weak link in the Steelers secondary, but since declining veteran Donald Driver typically lines up at the “X” position, Gay and McFadden should be able to manage. Don't be shocked to see WR Jordy Nelson spell Driver in the lineup.
The matchup with more scoring at stake will likely be on the opposite hash marks.
Matchup Question: CB Ike Taylor Versus WR Greg Jennings
The Steelers are hoping Ike Taylor can at least contain the Pro-Bowl speedster, who exploded for eight catches for 130 yards in the conference title win at Chicago. Expect free safety Ryan Clark to provide Taylor with plenty of help downfield in bracketing Jennings, the Packers' most reliable home-run hitter who racked up a team-high 12 touchdowns and 1,265 yards receiving this season.
Green Bay is 5-2 this season in games where Jennings surpassed 100 yards receiving, and 6-3 in games where he found the end zone.
Matchup Question: LB Clay Matthews Versus RB Rashard Mendenhall
Mendenhall looked as untouchable versus the Jets’ vaunted rush defense in the AFC Championship as he had at any point in his pro career. With quick feet, great vision, and substantial power, the Steelers’ lead back has enjoyed a breakout season, and displayed an impressive arsenal of athletic ability as his performance essentially carried Pittsburgh to its eighth Super Bowl with some help from the defense in this win.
Matthews has amassed 11 tackles and 3.5 sacks thus far in three postseason victories, and figures to key on Mendenhall all evening. As the Pro Bowl starting linebacker looks completely recovered from injuries to his hamstring and shin that plagued him throughout the second half of the regular season, Mendenhall will have his work cut out for him if he plans on a repeat performance of his previous effort.
Given the talented playmakers in the Packer secondary, Mendenhall will be sorely needed to move the chains as well as the clock to keep Aaron Rodgers off the field for as long as possible.
Matchup Question: CB Tramon Williams Versus WR Mike Wallace
Steelers wideout Hines Ward has entered the twilight stages of his illustrious career, and has all but ceded No. 1 WR duties to speed demon Mike Wallace. Since Wallace plays split-end, he’ll likely be shadowed by Williams, a late addition to the Pro Bowl roster who is enjoying a career-year with six interceptions and a team-leading 20 passes defended as Green Bay’s top cover corner. Charles Woodson may be the future Hall of Famer in the Packer secondary, but Williams is playing the best football of anyone in their defensive backfield right now.
Wallace was held to a season-low one catch for six yards when he was shut down by a healthy dose of Jets CB Antonio Cromartie in the AFC Title Game. While one could make the argument that the Packers’ cornerbacks are playing as well as the Jets’ corners had throughout the season, the onus will be on Wallace to atone for his clunker against New York by beating Williams deep for a score and stretching the Packer defense in Dallas.
Steelers' X-Factor: TE Heath Miller
Roethlisberger’s unsung safety valve has become a bigger part of the Steeler offense in recent weeks. The athletic tight end led Pittsburgh with 38 yards receiving against the Jets, and also had a team-high five catches in the Divisional victory over the Ravens on Jan. 15.
Should Mike Wallace be unable to shake free from defenders in the secondary and Hines Ward be shut down by Charles Woodson, look for Roethlisberger to offset the run by looking for Miller over the middle on play-action passes to a chorus of “HEEEEATH” from the Steelers faithful in attendance at Cowboys Stadium.
Packers' X-Factor: DB/KR Sam Shields
Shields made quite a name for himself in the NFC Championship Game when he strip-sacked Bears QB Jay Cutler and picked off two passes, the latter of which iced the victory for the Packers as time wound down in the fourth quarter.
Shields will be counted on to defend Steelers speedy wideouts Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown on fade routes and crossing patterns.
In addition to serving as a valuable member of Green Bay's stingy secondary, Shields was also placed on kick returns earlier in the season. His 4.2 40-yard dash speed makes him one of the fastest players on the team, and the talented rookie could provide the Pack with great field-position if he finds a seam in Pittsburgh's kickoff coverage.
C Maurkice Pouncey’s ankle—When the stud rookie center sustained a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of the AFC Championship Game against the Jets, this appeared to be a devastating loss for Pittsburgh, as Pouncey was the team’s anchor who held together an offensive line that had been beset by injuries all season long. Reserve Doug Legursky came in, and did a great job of both snapping the ball to and protecting Ben Roethlisberger, as well opening up holes for the Steeler run attack.
The worst was feared when Pouncey was unable to put any weight on his left leg when he was helped off the field. Although he went on record to say that the injury won’t keep him out of the Super Bowl, as he had experienced a similar injury and rehab to his other ankle earlier in his career, a broken bone was discovered in his ankle, and he has since been all but ruled out for the big game. Although Pouncey was seen as recently as Feb. 3 walking around without a boot, has has not practiced, so Steelers Nation should expect Legursky to get the start at center, and take on NT BJ Raji.
Steelers All-Pro SS Troy Polamulu had been fighting a nagging Achilles injury for weeks, and played at less than 100 percent against the Jets. By the time Feb. 6 is upon us, the ball-hawking safety with the long, flowing mane should have benefited from the extra week of rest for the championship tilt in Texas.
Pittsburgh DE Aaron Smith has been sidelined since Oct. 24 with a torn triceps. Although he has been officially listed as limited in practice, he isn't expected to be ready in time for Feb 6. The Steel Curtain hasn't missed a beat with Ziggy Hood performing admirably in Smith's absence.
Green Bay is healthy by comparison. T Chad Clifton has been limited in practice with gimpy knees. C Jason Spitz has been rehabbing a strained calf, and LB Erik Walden is nursing an ankle injury he sustained in the NFC Championship game at Chicago. All three are expected to be ready in time to take on the Steelers.
Questions About the Future: Coaches in Potential Transit
Dick LeBeau, Defensive Coordinator, Steelers—As the architect of the most feared defense in the NFL, LeBeau is one of the hottest coaching names being thrown around, given that his contract expires at the end of the season. Although he predictably hasn’t commented on his future as he and the Steelers prepare for the Super Bowl, the Arizona Cardinals, who hired former Pittsburgh DC Ken Whisenhunt as their head coach, would love to land LeBeau as well.
Ray Horton, Secondary Coach, Steelers—Horton had attracted interest from the Cowboys to become their next defensive coordinator before Dallas hired Rob Ryan, formerly the DC in Cleveland. Don’t be surprised to see Arizona GM Rod Graves try and replace the ousted Billy Davis with Horton if they can’t entice LeBeau to come coach the Cards.
Winston Moss, Linebackers Coach, Packers—Moss has been speculated to be the Eagles’ first choice as their next defensive coordinator in 2011. Although his resume doesn’t shine like many other potential hires, Philadelphia Head Coach Andy Reid reportedly feels Moss is an ideal fit to replace ex-DC Sean McDermott, whose defense allowed 36 touchdowns in 46 red-zone visits from the opposing offense this season. The 21.7 percent success rate ranks worst for any NFL defense in the past 20 years.
Mike Trgovac, Defensive Line Coach, Packers—Trgovac was considered the favorite to land the defensive coordinator job for the Denver Broncos before Dennis Allen accepted the position. As the situation currently stands, Trgovac is expected to stay put in Green Bay.
Questions About the Future: Packers' Key Pending Free Agents
RB Brandon Jackson, WR James Jones, C Jason Spitz, C Darren Colledge, DE Cullen Jenkins, S Atari Bigby, K Mason Crosby
* Jackson has become expendable with the arrival of rookie feature back James Starks, although both his pass-catching skills and his blitz-pickup capabilities will likely be missed by QB Aaron Rodgers.
* Jones has been inconsistent, but has shown flashes of playmaking ability throughout the season.
* Spitz and Colledge are little more than a decent rotation at center, and Green Bay is unlikely to retain both of them. Colledge seems more likely to be re-signed by Packers GM Ted Thompson.
* Jenkins battled calf injuries all season long to tie a career-high with seven sacks in just 11 games in 2010. He should be re-signed by the Pack.
* Bigby has been active for only a handful of games this season, and has slowly regained enough to serve the Packers secondary as a backup to Charlie Peprah. If Bigby returns to health and plays well on Super Bowl Sunday, he could earn himself a nice payday if he picks off a Ben Roethlisberger pass with a nice return. With the emergence of Sam Shields, Bigby has become expendable in Titletown.
* Normally one of the league's more reliable kickers, Crosby has had a down year with a career-low 134 points scored and an unimpressive 75 percent field-goal success-rate. If he shanks an important field goal against Pittsburgh, expect the Packers to at least shop around for a replacement.
Questions About the Future: Steelers' Key Pending Free Agents
QB Dennis Dixon, RB Mewelde Moore, TE Matt Spaeth, G Trai Essex, LB Lamarr Woodley, CB Ike Taylor, CB William Gay, K Shaun Suisham, P Daniel Sepulveda
* Dixon had a chance to shine earlier in the season under center when Big Ben was suspended, but suffered a season-ending meniscus tear. It is unclear whether he has shown Coach Tomlin enough to warrant a re-signing, but when Dixon is healthy, his athletic ability is unreal.
* Moore is an asset to Roethlisberger in blitz pickup, and provides solid hands on third downs. Otherwise, he’s strictly a situational backup to Rashard Mendenhall, but is a candidate to be re-signed based on his knowledge of the Steelers’ offense.
* Spaeth showed questionable hands as a blocking specialist playing behind Heath Miller, and may be re-signed at the right price, but is otherwise an expendable spare part.
* Essex is a veteran stopgap at left tackle, as he backs up Jonathan Scott. Although he offers some versatility as he can also fill in at guard, Essex isn’t an elite offensive lineman.
* Woodley is one of the Steelers’ most indispensable defensive players, and has registered a sack in an NFL-record six consecutive playoff games. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, Woodley is a restricted free agent after the season, so given the uncertainty with the labor situation, expect Woodley to remain a Steeler until a new CBA is hashed out. Even then, it would be odd for Pittsburgh to let Woodley walk given how well he’s played in black and gold.
* Taylor is the Steelers’ best cover cornerback, and figures to be re-signed barring a horrific injury in the Super Bowl. The three-time World Champ has been instrumental in Pittsburgh’s dynasty run of the last six years.
* Gay may have had an opportunistic fumble return for a touchdown in the AFC Championship, but remains a backup to CB Bryant McFadden, who was temporarily benched due to a lingering abdominal strain.
* The aforementioned Suisham has a lot of potential money on the table if he converts some key field goals in Dallas on Sunday.
* Sepulveda is out for the season with another torn ACL (third time he's torn his non-kicking knee ligament), and may be done as a Steeler.
Prediction: Steelers In Another Barnburner
Green Bay opened as a 2.5-point favorite, and the point spread has increased to a field goal with most of the early action on the Pack. Despite the fact that they entered the postseason as the No. 6 seeded team in the NFC and will be traveling to their fourth playoff destination in five weeks, the betting public has fallen in love with The Cheese.
The Steelers have the edge in experience with their third Super Bowl trip in six years, and Roethlisberger boasts a 10-2 career record in his postseason career. Assuming the Steel Curtain shows up and shuts down the Packer rushing attack, all eyes will be on Aaron Rodgers to move the chains for Green Bay. Rodgers needs to maintain the same chemistry with wideout Greg Jennings as they shared in the NFC Championship, because Pittsburgh can be beaten via the pass.
However, when factoring Roethlisberger’s toughness and escapability, Rashard Mendenhall’s speed and shiftiness, the defense’s ability to consistently stuff the run, and the Steeler coaching staff’s experience, it’s hard not to trust a team that has been to the big game several times recently, won’t be overwhelmed by the spotlight, the media and ticket requests, and is peaking at the right time.
Furthermore, the Green Bay defense showed some major holes when Bears third-string QB Caleb Hanie marched down the field for two scoring drives in the latter stages of the NFC Championship. Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will have a good amount of game-film on how to pick the Packers apart. If their incredible 2009 shootout was any indication, there should be plenty of points scored in this rematch. The last time these two teams met, Big Ben passes for over 500 yards, so it's safe to say he's comfortable making zone reads against the Green Bay secondary.
Last but not least, part of the Steelers' storied legacy can be attributed to the fact that they have gotten favorable calls from the officials at opportunistic times throughout their history. While these intangible aspects of the game are too difficult to predict, history suggests that at some point during Super Bowl XLV, expect the zebras to throw the Steelers a requisite bone on a mysterious pass interference, holding, illegal contact penalty, or a questionable ball spot.
We’ve danced to this tune before. Although Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have enjoyed an amazing postseason, the current Steelers dynasty will celebrate its most recent installment of dominance on Feb. 6.
Steelers 31, Packers 27