Super Bowl XLV (or 45, for those of you who don't speak Latin) looks to be a contest of cat-and-mouse worthy of Tom and Jerry, the feline and rodent eternal enemies of cartoon fame.
Some think that the strengths and weaknesses of each team match up well with each other, and some don't. To me it looks like the apparent matchups are not so apparent, and what should be a strength is as likely to be a strength as a weakness, and vice-versa. There is too much uncertainty to foresee a trend.
The Steelers ran roughshod over a very good Jets rushing defense. The passing game did not fare so well against an outstanding Jets secondary. The Packers rushing defense is mediocre, giving up about 4.7 yards per rush for the season. This would indicate the running game is a strength for the Steelers, no?
The speedy Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders were able to get open deep against the Jets secondary only two or three times. And the Packers secondary is also outstanding, even with a rookie now starting because of injuries, and they play nickel coverage a large portion of the time. It looks like the Steelers' passing game would be as problematic as it was against the Jets.
On the surface it would seem that the Steelers could use the same strategy against the Packers that they did against the Jets. As the old song goes, "Run, run, run." Then pass when necessary.
On the other hand, the Packers' defensive line and linebackers are at least as good as those of the Jets, and possibly better. With the Steelers sporting a patchwork offensive line, one would expect the Packers front seven to shred the Steelers offensive line, which would bode ill even for Mendenhall and Company.
On the passing side, the Packers blitz more than the Jets do. Clay Matthews has been a pass rushing beast, and the Packers secondary is playing better than it has all season. It certainly looks like Ben Roethlisberger would have even less time to throw than normal.
And we all know how Ben likes to hold the ball, and what happens when he does. Sounds like a possible recipe for disaster in the passing game.
So (with apologies to William Shakespeare), to run or not to run, to pass or not to pass, those are the questions.
How will this game be won? How do the Steelers attack the Packers on offense? How do they make their stand on defense?
Talent alone won't win this game. Execution alone won't win this game. It will take masterful coaching to win this game.
And winning by coaching is a cat-and-mouse game.
Deception, misdirection, adjustments, adjustments to adjustments, will be required. It will take strategy and tactics that are close enough to normal that the opponent will think they know what to expect and how to counter it, but just slightly enough different that they're left wondering what just happened and why they missed it.
Bruce Arians has a tendency to be Bill Cowher in his strategy and tactics: Stubborn, predictable, inflexible, conservative when he should be a gambler, a gambler when he should be conservative, afraid to be any other coach than the one he is.
And, frankly, Dick Lebeau sometimes falls into this trap as well. Did anybody not know that in the second half against the Jets, Lebeau would call a less aggressive defensive game, playing softer coverage with less blitzing, so as to keep the ball in front of the defenders, avoid the big play and protect a big lead?
Are Arians and Tomlin willing to abandon "doing what we do" whenever necessary to keep the Steelers one step ahead of the Packers? And then return to "what we do" only when they think that the Packers have adjusted?
Are they willing to run normal plays at times when they don't normally run such plays? Are they wiling to take the shorter, higher-percentage play instead of going for the big play, and then go for broke when the Packers least expect it?
Are they willing to be Bill Belichick, to do the opposite of what everyone else expects?
Is Lebeau willing to be aggressive to try to get the lead, and then continue to be aggressive to preserve a lead? Or will he call for a soft defense, in fear of a dangerous quarterback, as he did in the games against New England and New Orleans?
We know Lebeau can play the cat-and-mouse game, as Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez will attest. But can Arians do it? Can Mike Tomlin do it?
More importantly, WILL they do it? They did it for two game-saving plays in the final minutes against the Jets. Will they do it for an entire game to win another Lombardi Trophy?
In the cartoon world, Tom occasionally wins the battle, but Jerry always wins the war. For Super Bowl XLV, here's hoping that the rodent is wearing black and gold.