Well we're three days away from the end of the 2010 football season, and as a football fan, you couldn't ask for a better matchup. At this point, every possible storyline has been brought up and beaten way past what was necessary. The Pro Bowl was a mess, the weather in Dallas is a mess, but even that won't damper the anticipation for what could be one of the best Super Bowls in the history of the game. So without further adieu, here's a complete breakdown of the game, including who needs to step up and what to watch for.
When the Green Bay Packers have the ball
The Packers come in to the game with one of the most explosive offenses in football, led by new media darling Aaron Rodgers and arguably the deepest receiving core in the National Football league. The offense ranked 9th in the league, and was the 3rd least penalized offense in the NFL, a big reason they’ve made it farther than last year. They averaged 24.2 points per game, good for 10th in the league.
The Pittsburgh Steelers come in with the top defense in the NFL allowing only 14.5 points per game. Dick LeBeau’s defense is led by two Defensive Player of the Year winners in super-safety Troy Polamalu and James Harrison, and the aging but still superb veterans Casey Hampton and James Farrior.
In the Air
The Steelers had the 12th ranked defense against the pass this year and led the league in sacks—Green Bay had the 5th ranked passing offense.
As good as that is, they've been even better in the postseason. Until he had a pass bounce off Donald Driver's foot and straight up into the hands of Lance Briggs, Aaron Rodgers hadn't thrown a postseason interception since his first ever postseason pass, a span in which he threw 10 TDs. This postseason, Rodgers has an incredible 109.2 passer rating—throwing six TDs compared to two INTs and is completing his passes at a 70.1% clip.
More importantly is how well Rodgers played last time he was in a dome, completing 31 of 36 passes en route to knocking off the top-seeded Falcons. Look for the Packers to stretch the field with intermediate-long passes. The Packers have 15 pass plays of 20 or more yards. By comparison, that’s twice as many as the next highest (Mark Sanchez with 7), while Big Ben only has four.
Stretching the field will be a key aspect for the Packers. If they can attack the secondary, it will force Troy Polamalu to stay out of the box, which opens up the run game. James Jones will need to step up. The Steelers don't have the CB depth to stay with Pro Bowler Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and Jones. Jones will need to avoid the drops that have plagued him in the past because you can be sure he is going to get mismatches and will see the ball thrown his way.
Conversely, the key for the Steelers' CBs will be to get physical at the line of scrimmage. The Packers offense is very timing-based, contingent on the success of back-shoulder throws, slants, and hooks. The Pittsburgh secondary needs to disrupt that timing to allow for the pass rush to get to Rodgers.
That, however, may not even be enough. The Atlanta Falcons got plenty of free runners against the Pack in the Divisional Round, but Rodgers’ elite elusiveness allowed him to extend plays and turn potential sacks into big gains. The Steelers will need to do a good job wrapping up and not allowing Rodgers to get away.
On the Ground
The Steelers had the best rushing defense in the league in 2010, while the Packers struggled to run the ball until the emergence of 6th round pick James Starks. Don't expect a lot of success running the football by Green Bay, but expect plenty of attempts. Mike McCarthy will call enough run plays to keep the defense honest, especially in 3rd and short situations. Fullback-converted-halfback John Kuhn was 9-10 in converting 3rd and 1 this season.
Starks won't have to be spectacular. He may not even have to be good, if the Packer aerial attack can duplicate—or even come close to—their Atlanta performance. They will throw to set up the pass, and if they do succeed in keeping Polamalu out of the box, expect to see some draw plays to take advantage of the Steelers' aggressive blitzing.
Expect the Packers to run to the strong side against Ziggy Hood instead of Brett Kiesel. RG Josh Sitton is one of the best in the league and while Hood has been improving rapidly, this is the trench matchup that most favors the Packers. Casey Hampton will need to be able to beat Scott Wells frequently to force the Packers to abandon the run early.
Packers Key Player Aaron Rodgers
It doesn’t get much more obvious than this. Rodgers has nearly singlehandedly brought this offense this far despite the injuries of Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley, among others. He makes plays with his feet, he makes plays with his arm, and he will need to be at the top of his game to beat this defense.
Steelers Key Player Troy Polamalu
The Packers will need to know where this man is at all times. The Steeler defense is worlds better with him on the field than off it, as he’s aggressive against the run and great defending the pass. The man is the Defensive Player of the year for a reason. He will need to cause big plays to stop this offense.
Most Important Matchup Aaron Rodgers vs. Dick Lebeau
Perhaps Rodgers' greatest trait is his pre-snap read of defenses. He recognizes what the defense is doing and makes his decision before he throws. LeBeau’s, one of the greatest minds to ever coach the game, will need to be at his best, mixing up coverages and disguising blitzes to keep Rodgers from getting comfortable Because when Aaron Rodgers is comfortable, it can be a long day for the defense.
Also Watch Lamarr Woodley vs. Bryan Bulaga
I picked this matchup over James Harrison vs. Chad Clifton because Clifton had a career year, making the Pro Bowl, and should do a decent job on Harrison. However, Bulaga is a rookie that, while has had a decent year, is by far the weaker link in the Packers' line. Woodley needs to beat him consistently to give the Steelers a shot. Aaron Rodgers is great against the blitz, so Pittsburgh will need to get substantial pressure only blitzing four or five guys so that they don’t compromise the coverage.
When the Steelers have the Ball
While Pittsburgh’s defense was arguably the best defense in the league, the Packers weren’t far behind them, coming second place for both scoring defense and sacks, and also picking off the second most amount of passes in football. Led by DPoY candidate Clay Matthews, last year’s winner Charles Woodson, and breakout internet dancing sensation BJ Raji, this unit is every bit as stingy as their counterparts. They allowed15 points per game.
The Steeler offense survived without its leader Ben Roethilsberger for four games to start the season, and has since done what Steeler offenses do—play well enough. Roethlisberger comes in with plenty of weapons around him, including breakout RB Rashard Mendenhall and one of the best deep threats in football Mike Wallace.
In The Air
As was said before with Rodgers, Roethlisberger too is just as adept at getting away from pressure. The Steelers’ makeshift offensive line will be tested not only by Clay Matthews, Cullen Jenkins, and the usual pass rushers, but by the likes of Charles Woodson and Sam Shields, both of whom Dom Capers loves to bring from the slot.
The key to rushing the passer for the Packers will be the big guys up front getting pressure. As successful as they’ve been with Shields and Woodson getting free runs at quarterbacks, Roethlisberger will be much harder to bring down than Matt Ryan or Jay Cutler. Therefore, guys like Cullen Jenkins, BJ Raji, and Ryan Pickett will need to penetrate the line, and expect AJ Hawk and Desmond Bishop to do their fair share of blitzing as well. When Capers does bring DBs, expect them to go for the ball instead of trying to bring Big Ben down.
When the Packers don’t get to Big Ben, however, they will need to stop the deep passes. Aside from veteran Hines Ward, the trio of Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown all have the speed to stretch the field. Expect to see Capers put Woodson on Ward, where Woodson’s speed won’t be as exposed. This will be a dogfight all game. The Packers’ faster corners, playoff star Tramon Williams and NFC Championship game hero Sam Shields, on Wallace and Sanders.
Expect Big Ben to utilize the pump fake a lot to move around safeties Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah. Collins is a ball hawk who has made three straight Pro Bowls and three straight second team All-Pro teams. Pittsburgh will test the middle of the field with mismatch-causing TE Heath Miller.
On the Ground
Here the Steelers come in with a bigger advantage. Their 166 yards on the ground against the Jets was a huge part of why they won that game. The Packers, coming in having the 18th ranked run defense in the regular season, allowing 4.7 YPC. The Packers big guys up front will need to step up and hold their ground. 370-pound Howard Green should see a bit of action on short down situations.
Pittsburgh will follow the opposite approach as Green Bay—they will run to set up the pass. Look for Roethilsberger to roll out of the pocket to make the Packers big lineman chase him and tire out.
One benefit for the Steelers is the best run-blocking WR in the game in Hines Ward, who should be able to neutralize Woodson, a big part of Green Bay’s run defense. Expect Pittsburgh to run off tackle more than they normally would to stay away from BJ Raji, who will be huge even if Maurkice Pouncey does play. Like the Packers, the Steelers excel on third down and short, with Isaac Redman converting eight of ten chances on the season.
Steelers Key Player Ben Roethilsberger
Again, obvious. The most physically gifted passer in the game, Roethlisberger is the key to winning this game. He will endure his share of hits, as the Pittsburgh offensive line is less than stellar. If he can take care of the ball, holding on to it when he gets hit and not forcing throws against a ball hawking secondary, he could keep the Steelers in it.
Packers Key Player Clay Matthews
Finishing second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting to Polamalu, Matthews enjoyed a breakout start to the season with six sacks in the first two games. He cooled off, partly due to injuries in the Washington game, but has picked it back up in the playoffs. Capers will move him around to get matchups, and expect him to use the speed rush against 35-year old RT Flozell Adams frequently. Both Pittsburgh OTs are backups, and “the Claymaker” will need to take advantage and get to Roethilsberger to keep him from making plays of his own.
Most Important Matchup BJ Raji vs. Doug Legursky/Maurkice Pouncey
Raji has really come on in the second half of this season, and will need to have a big game here. Whoever ends up blocking him will have to contain him in the running game and keep him at bay against the pass. If Raji can push the pile and close cutback lanes against the running game, it will force the Steelers to become one dimensional. If Raji can penetrate and get to Roethilsberger (he has 6.5 sacks on the year), even Big Ben shouldn’t be able to escape.
Also Watch Mike Wallace vs. Sam Shields/Tramon Williams/Nick Collins
Getting Wallace open will be key for the Pittsburgh offense. If he can stretch the field and average 21 yards per catch like he did in the regular season, it will open up the screen game as well as the intermediate passing game for the likes of Ward and Heath Miller—48 of his 60 catches this year went for first downs. The Packers will stick a faster corner on him and hope that they can do a similar job that Sam Shields did on Johnny Knox against the Bears. Collins will need to keep Wallace in front of him.
Neither team holds an overwhelming edge in special teams. Jeremy Kapinos has done a decent job punting for the injured Daniel Sepulveda, and has improved in the playoffs for the Steelers, and Tim Masthay did a great job kicking around Devin Hester in the Chicago Bears game after a week off when he didn’t punt against Atlanta. The Steelers hold an edge in the return game.
Kicking, the Packers have an edge with Crosby’s huge leg, and playing in a dome where conditions aren’t a factor his accuracy issues won’t be as big a deal. Shaun Suisham was fairly accurate for Pittsburgh this year, though didn’t make a field goal longer than 48 yards.
There’s no way this game doesn’t come down to the wire. The Steelers allow only half a point less per game, but Green Bay scores just 0.8 points more. Both quarterbacks will make plays, but both will be frustrated by the two top scoring and sacking defenses in the league. It comes down to which offensive line you trust more, and at this point (especially if Maurkice Pouncey doesn’t play), that would have to go to Green Bay.
I think the Packers will run the ball about 20 times for 60-70 yards, frequently enough to keep the defense honest, but rely on the pass to keep the box open. Rodgers will complete passes at about a 55-60% rate, throwing a few more incompletions that normal because of shots down the field to keep Polamalu from creeping up. He will be sacked three times, once by Brett Keisel, once by Lamarr Woodley, and once by Lawrence Timmons. TDs will come from Greg Jennings, James Jones, and John Kuhn. Crosby hits at least one field goal from 50+ yards.
The Steelers will play Steeler football, running the ball and throwing when they have to. Roethlisberger will be hurried 10-15 times, and get sacked five times (Raji, Jenkins, Matthews x2, Bishop) but make enough plays to keep his offense in it. Heath Miller and Rashard Mendenhall (x2) will score TDs.
Final Score: Green Bay 27, Pittsburgh 24.