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PASSING OFFENSE: After serving a four game suspension, Ben Roethlisberger came back to have a very good season. He threw for 3,200 yards in just 12 games and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 17-to-5 in the regular season. Along with his big arm, Big Ben is known for his size and toughness and is hard for defenders to bring down. Said Clay Matthews, “Ben Roethlisberger is one of toughest QBs to sack. He’s one of those guys who will fight. He makes plays by breaking tackles.”
He was aided by a solid group of receivers led by the blazing fast Mike Wallace (60 rec, 1,257 yards), ageless possession receiver Hines Ward (59 rec, 755 yards), and tight end Heath Miller (42 rec, 512 yards). Emmanuel Sanders and Antwaan Randle El are good 3rd and 4th receivers that add speed and depth to the the corps. Former Viking Mewelde Moore has emerged into a threat to catch out of the backfield as a 3rd down back. Passing has become the strength of the Steelers’ offense. They finished ranked 14th in the NFL in passing, but that ranking would have been significantly higher had Roethlisberger not been suspended to start the season.
- WST’s Take: This matchup with the Packers’ pass defense will go a long way to deciding the winner of Super Bowl XLV. Green Bay has improved significantly in pass defense since last year’s debacle at Hines Field, and they have the speed to match the Steelers receivers. Green Bay comes in ranked 5th in the league in pass yards given up and 2nd in interceptions.
- Two of Roethlisberger’s worst games this year have come against the Jets, who, like the Packers, have a very strong secondary and run a 3-4 defense. New York was able to get pressure on the quarterback, and it is very important for the Packers are able to get a pass rush on Big Ben (the Pack ranks 2nd in the league in sacks). Although it appears highly unlikely that the Steelers have the type of success they did last year against Green Bay, this is one of the best passing attacks the Packers have seen this year and will be a major challenge for Dom Capers.
RUSHING OFFENSE: Pittsburgh has been able to run the ball effectively when they need to. Rashard Mendenhall (324 attempts, 1,273 yards, 13 touchdowns) is a very physical runner who is coming off a game where he was called on to run the ball 27 times for 121 yards. He has been particularly effective in short yardage situations because of his ability to bounce off of the first defender to make contact with him. He has been used as a workhorse in games where the Steelers have struggled to pass the ball, such as the first four games of the season (when Roethlisberger was not playing) and last week against New York. In one game against Buffalo, he ran the ball 36 times for 151 yards. He has however struggled against strong run defenses such as Baltimore (he ran for only 46 yards on 20 carries in the divisional playoff game). Second year player, Issac Redman (52 attempts, 247 yards) is another physical runner who has been used effectively to spell Mendenhall. The Steelers come into the game ranked 11th in the NFL in rush yards.
- WST’s Take: The Packers ranked 18th in the league in rush yards allowed this year, a steep drop off from last year’s number one ranking. The main reason for this is because the Packers have used their Nickel package more than any other team in football this year in order to stop the pass. This “bend, but don’t break” approach has led to more rush yards given up. Despite the mediocre ranking, Green Bay has been effective in stopping the run when they need to, and are not overly susceptible to huge games by opposing running backs. Look for Pittsburgh to run the ball often early in the game and have mixed success. If Roethlisberger struggles to find his rhythm, expect heavy doses of Mendenhall especially if the game remains close and low scoring. The Steelers may be without Pro Bowl CenterMaurkice Pouncey, which could hurt their rush offense. With the largest 3-4 defensive line in the NFL (B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, and Howard Green), the Packers will present a challenge to the Steelers in short yardage. There may be some interesting 3rd or 4th and 1′s that will play a major role in this game.
PASS DEFENSE: No team rushes the quarterback better than the Pittsburgh Steelers. James Harrisonand Lamar Woodley make up the NFL’s best outside linebacker duo (by far). Both players have at least 10 sacks on the season, and have helped the Steelers lead the league in this category. With help from this pressure on the QB, Pittsburgh ranks 5th in interceptions. They also have the most dynamic Safety in the league in Troy Polamolu, who is often playing in the box and blitzing, but can also cover enough ground to cover receivers and tight ends as well as any safety in the league. He is one of the most important players in the league, over the last two seasons Pittsburgh is 16-4 when Polamalu plays and 6-7 when he sits. Opposite safety Ryan Clark has done and excellent job of playing centerfield this year, and Ike Taylor has become a very solid left corner. Although he is not a complete “shut down” corner, he is in the upper tier of corners in the league. The other side is the weaker side. Bryant McFadden has been a weak link in the Steelers secondary and has given up a very high completion percentage this season. According to STATS INC. McFadden was targeted 166 times by opposing QB’s and allowed 77 completions (66.4 percent), including five TDs. Nickel back, William Gay has been solid but is also susceptible. Pittsburgh ranks 12th in the league in pass defense.
- WST’s Take: There is no question that the Packers think they can win the match up of their receiver corps against Pittsburgh’s secondary. The question is: Can Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga handle Woodley and Harrison? If the answer is no, it will be a long day for the Packers offense. If Bulaga and Clifton can hold up long enough against those two on the outside, someone will be open. Don’t be surprised to see Aaron Rodgers try to spread Pittsburgh out like against Atlanta. Look for Rodgers to try to isolate McFadden and Gay like he did against Chicago’s Tim Jennings and Atlanta’sChristopher Owens. Green Bay’s top four receivers could all have big days like against Pittsburgh. Rodgers is also the best quarterback in the league against the blitz and has done well to avoid throwing interceptions. Cowboy Stadium is a semi-roofed facility with a controlled environment, and the Packers have been able to pass very well indoors over the last few seasons.
RUN DEFENSE: The Steelers run defense is far and away number 1 in the league. They sit back and protect against the pass and dare teams to run the ball on them. Last week against the Jets, who came in ranked 4th in the league running the ball, Pittsburgh only gave up 70 yards rushing (they average only 62.8 yards per game given up). They are led by nose tackle, Casey Hampton and inside linebackersLawrence Timmons and James Farrior. One of the main reasons they are able to pressure the QB so well and intercept passes are because they are so good against the run that their opponent becomes one-dimensional.
- WST’s Take: While James Starks has had success running in the playoffs, this will be his biggest challenge of his young career. Expect the Packers to try to use the pass to set up the run, as opposed to the more conventional opposite approach. Green Bay could run into trouble if they try to ice the clock with the lead at the end of the game if they cannot run the ball.