It was shocking yet predictable, efficient yet sloppy, and entertaining yet lackluster. Aaron Rodgers played phenomenally under a pass-heavy game-plan while Ben Roethlisberger, an elite quarterback in the two minute drill, folded late. The more experienced team committed the stupid penalties while the less experienced team remained poised in its execution (minus a few drops), and both teams came out relatively flat on offense before finding their respective sparks. Only in America’s biggest sporting event can such dichotomies co-exist, and Super Bowl XLV showcased exactly that.
The Green Bay Packers’ 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers was a four-hour spectacle of vicious hits, fantastic commercials, and one botched National Anthem. But underneath the glitz and glamour of the highest-rated program in television history, defining details are waiting to be articulated.
Modern technology affords fans the ability to record their favorite games for retrospective inspection and analysis. And if certain quantities of certain kinds of drinks prevented die-hards from drawing reasonable conclusions after the first viewing, a second one will delineate the key takeaways for each team. For all its surprises, Super Bowl XLV was illustrative and indicative of where each team stands moving forward. Let's evaluate what the game meant for both teams, starting with the champs.
Aaron Rodgers is really special. In three years, the 27-year old California native has gone from being Brett Favre’s unwanted understudy to Super Bowl MVP. Aside from the intangibles—his documented work ethic and football intelligence, there really isn’t anything he can’t do on the field. Forget the microscopic windows this guy finds on both short and long routes; he remains poised in the pocket without sacrificing his mobility and proclivity for extending plays. While his numbers from Sunday—24 of 39 for 304 yards and three touchdowns—are outstanding, they don’t reflect the night he could have had with better receiving. Arguably the most accurate pocket passer in the NFL, Rodgers makes smart decisions with the football and reads blitz packages like a ten-year veteran. One more title is probable for Rodgers, two is feasible.
The Pack has a talented and cohesive offensive line; size throughout, veteran leadership on the left and young athleticism on the right. Rodgers' own athleticism and intelligence undoubtedly mitigated a vicious and complex Steelers defense, but he nonetheless had excellent protection all night. To negate Pittsburgh’s run-stopping proficiency and leverage its passing game, Green Bay worked out of spread formations for most of the game, creating more gaps and holes for linemen to cover, often without blocking help from the tight end position. Factor in the inexperience of backs like James Starks and Brandon Jackson in pass protection, and one realizes how much responsibility the big men carried in this game. It wasn’t instrumental to the Pack’s game-plan—it was their game plan and it worked.
The deepest team usually wins in this sport, and after illustrating its quality depth all season, the Pack did it again on Sunday. From the first game, when starting tailback Ryan Grant went down, to midseason when Rodgers suffered his second concussion, to the 20th game when wide receiver Donald Driver and cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Sam Shields went down, Green Bay kept the injury effect soundly in check. Call it luck or call it depth, but this season clearly identified what deep and thin (if any) positions Green Bay has, making it easier to formulate draft picks come April. Start with the defensive end position and go from there, since both Ryan Pickett and Cullen Jenkins are 30+ years of age and Clay Matthews can’t be the only pass rushing threat in a couple years.
Speed over size on both sides of the ball. On paper, this game purported to be a matchup between old school and new age clubs; a hardnosed, physical veteran team versus an athletic, momentous, inexperienced team. But defensively, these two teams aren’t so different. Since both run 3-4 base defenses, both are fueled by speedy, athletic play from linebackers who can cover and blitz with equal skill. While it’s generally easier to run against a 3-4, with elite linebackers, most tailbacks would prefer a 4-3. The Pack has the younger, faster linebackers and needs to maintain this particular group because they have remarkable chemistry. Two of Pittsburgh’s three turnovers were directly facilitated by linebackers getting pressure up the middle or off the edges. With Green Bay’s penchant for blitzing, keeping and developing a class of young studs like this one is pivotal. Aging defensive ends and corners (Woodson) dictate linebacker leadership on the field too.
As for Pittsburgh, they beat themselves, and most of its tunnel vision will reflect inefficiency and missed opportunities, but there are a few other tells from this game.
Run or die. What happened to the old school Steelers philosophy of power running and hardnosed defense to win games? The current receiving corps, between Mike Wallace’s speed and verticality, Antwan Randle-El’s reliability underneath, and Hines Ward’s experience and physicality, may be Pittsburgh’s best in a long time. But the Steelers simply aren’t a pass-first offense, and without the support of a viable ground attack, they become a mediocre offensive team best. Pittsburgh had a few nice runs between Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall, and 126 yards on 23 carries isn’t bad; the problem derived from a lack of rhythm and consistency in the ground game. The Steelers also gave themselves very few red zone opportunities to exploit Mendenhall’s size, and big ground gains had minimal effects on field position. Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis can’t possibly approve of running 40 pass plays to only 23 running plays.
That being said, Pittsburgh has the tools to gear its offense more towards the passing game, particularly in Mike Wallace. The 24-year old New Orleans native was targeted sixteen times on Sunday, ultimately hauling in nine catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. The majority of Roethlisberger’s erroneous throws were to Wallace, none bigger than an overthrown bomb in which he slipped behind coverage—a cardinal sin that Dom Capers will surely remind his defense of in due time. Though only 6 feet, 200 pounds, Wallace could be the new Randy Moss of deep balls and deserves a franchise tag. If Pittsburgh can expedite rookie Emmanuel Sanders’s development in the offseason, both Pennsylvania teams will have an elite tandem of young receivers.
Troy Polamalu is human like the rest of us. After a superb, seven-pick season, the only thing the he did in the Super Bowl was continue to have great hair. The eight year pro from USC seemed a step behind in his reads, neither hitting the line of scrimmage or ball-hawking with his usual efficacy. As for the former, Green Bay only ran the ball 13 times, and the Steelers front seven handled that without him. But as for the latter, Polamalu is usually everything in a backfield defender- a spy, rover, cover man, pass rusher- but not on this day. Green Bay stacked multiple receivers on the strong side to force him out of position, and although Polamalu normally thrives as a freelancer, the Pack was able to remove him from the equation in this manner. Not just that, while in zone coverage, he bit on double moves and play fakes from receivers on multiple plays, and Rodgers made him pay. The conclusion? Corners can’t give receivers extra cushioning or rely too heavily on bump-and-run coverage just because No. 43 is lurking somewhere in the backfield.
In the end, Green Bay's play consistently reflected its team identity, Pittsburgh's did not, and the cleaner, more efficient team won. It's not implausible to think a rematch on this stage could happen in the next few years though, and each team now has a usable template for grading itself and progressing towards that point.