When looking over the stats for Super Bowl XLV, the first thing that becomes clear is that, if you only looked at the stats, you’d have thought the Steelers won.
They had chalked up a greater number of total yards, including more than twice as many rushing yards, as well as more first downs, a greater time of possession, committed fewer penalties and recorded more sacks/quarterback hits.
Yet they were undone in the end by one crucial statistic which they were on the wrong end of: turnovers.
It’s become such a popular measuring stick for NFL success in recent years that focusing on it seems to be a cliché, like saying “they lost the game because they didn’t score enough points.” John Maddenisms aside, the turnover battle was indisputably decisive in this Super Bowl.
This was primarily because Green Bay fully exploited Pittsburgh’s uncharacteristic mistakes. Aaron Rodgers and the Packer offense scored a perfect three touchdowns off of three turnovers. Without question, this was the facet of the game upon which the outcome was decided.
Green Bay stretches the field by going conventional, not empty backfield
Much of the pregame talk about the Packers’ offense was regarding how aggressive they would be. How much responsibility would Coach Mike McCarthy place on Aaron Rodgers’ shoulders? How much would they try to run against Pittsburgh’s near-historically good run defense?
The answer, ultimately, was that McCarthy placed an extreme amount of the offense in Rodgers’ capable hands. The end-of-game stats broke down Green Bay’s pass-run ratio at exactly 75%-25%.
Even in the current age where empty backfields have grown more prevalent, it was an unusual decision to focus so heavily on the passing game. (And it was even more unique considering Green Bay was protecting a lead for almost the entire game).
Yet for all their focus on the passing game, Green Bay employed tricks that fooled Pittsburgh into thinking they were constantly on the verge of running more. On the Packers’ first scoring drive, there were three instances when they employed play-action.
The third came on 3rd and 1 at Pittsburgh’s 29 yard line (shown above).
With two receivers split to the strong side and an off-set I in the backfield, it certainly appeared that Green Bay was running. Pittsburgh, in their typically combative style, was bound and determined to stop the run.
Notice the bottom of the screen though, where 6’3” 215-pound Jordy Nelson is singled up on 5’10” 190 William Gay. Normally Gay would have help from Troy Polamalu guarding deep routes, but the situation has dictated Pittsburgh to be more aggressive in their play-call. Polamalu is playing more central (he’s just off the screen to the rear-middle).
The result could have gone either way. Gay’s coverage was perfectly adequate, but Nelson was simply too strong and gained the superior position, hauling in a 29 yard touchdown.
Nothing should be taken away from the execution of Rodgers and Nelson on the play, but had Green Bay stayed with their more predictable game-plan (a heavy dose of spread, shotgun sets), Pittsburgh would have been in a more conservative coverage that could have prevented the touchdown.
The Packers may not have run the ball, but the threat of it was enough to unlock Pittsburgh’s coverage.
McCarthy’s willingness to make quick adjustments from a game-plan he’d spent two weeks devising was the kind of bravery that Super Bowl-winning coaches have. I was impressed.
Specialized defenses hit their mark for Green Bay
Throughout the course of the game, Green Bay utilized an array of specialized defensive lineups and personnel groups. They used everything from a standard 3-4 to an amoeba-like front which had zero down-linemen.
Yet arguably the most important was a lineup that went in the complete opposite direction than their previous strategy. For most of the game, they had focused on stopping Ben Roethlisberger. Finally, after being torched by Pittsburgh’s ground game for three quarters, defensive coordinator Dom Capers made a change.
He inserted a fourth lineman in place of the strong safety, creating a 4-4-3 (four linemen, four linebackers and three defensive backs). It matched up perfectly with Pittsburgh’s power formations. And it was the first play of the fourth quarter that exemplified the benefits of this specialization.
As you can see, Green Bay has four linebackers (with the red dots over their heads). They also have two defensive backs in picture (blue dots) and one more behind them who’s out of the picture.
The difference is with the men on the Packer defense not highlighted (the linemen). Instead of only three linemen, they have four (and the Packer defensive line is one of the biggest in the NFL). This, as you can imagine, is designed to put the clamps on the Steeler running-game.
On this down (2nd and 2 at the Green Bay 33), Pittsburgh tried to run off-tackle right (a play they’d run perfectly on several other occasions including a third quarter touchdown).
But this time, the Packers were ready.
The very scary man with the red dot over his head is the prolific Clay Matthews, who had been abnormally quiet prior to this play. The enormous linemen circled in blue (who had been subbed-in to bulk up the Packer defense) is 340 pound Ryan Pickett. If you want to “bulk-up” your defense, there are few men with more bulk than Pickett.
On the play, Pickett occupies (and then overpowers) Pittsburgh lineman Doug Legursky. Had Green Bay gone with their standard three linemen setup, Legursky would’ve had a clean block on Matthews, but with Pickett in the game Matthews is still moving, unblocked.
And it was this decision (inserting Pickett) which created havoc in the Pittsburgh backfield. After all, Clay Mathews is one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL today, what chance did Steeler tight-end David Johnson (#85) have to block him on his own? Without an offensive lineman to block Matthews, the Steelers were asking for trouble.
Sure enough, Matthews simply outran Johnson and, together with Pickett, crushed Pittsburgh running back Rashard Mendenhall, forcing a pivotal fumble which setup Green Bay’s fourth and final touchdown of the night.
Their previously dwindling lead (which had shrunk from 21-3 to 21-17) was now restored to a comfortable two scores. The Steelers rallied late but fell short thanks, in part, to the fumble and ensuing touchdown caused by Matthews and Pickett.
In the end, you’d have to say that the exemplary play of Aaron Rodgers was ultimately the difference. Every tactical adjustment in the world couldn’t have compensated for his intelligence, accuracy and resilience. (After all, could you have seen, say, Phillip Rivers be so even-keel after four drops from his receivers?)
Yet Green Bay’s flexibility and aggression in their game-plan played a vast part in their fourth Super Bowl win as well. They may not have committed to the run, but their formation choice and use of play-action forced Pittsburgh to respect the threat of the run. And their constant switching of personnel on defense kept pass-rushers fresh and did what game-plans are ultimately supposed to do: put your best players in a position to make a play (which Mathews certainly did).
And now we move into an uncertain offseason. With the possibility of an NFL lockout growing geometrically every day, savoring this game for a while might not be a bad idea.
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