The Green Bay Packers authored the game plan the Pittsburgh Steelers can expect to see all season. Spread it out, hand the ball to your running back only when the run is wide open, and hope your defense can hang on long enough to defeat Ben Roethlisberger and his gang of playmakers.
Green Bay did this to perfection; little-known James Starks averaged over five yards per carry in the Super Bowl, an unthinkable stat against the league’s premier run defense. By playing away from the teeth of the NFL's most ferocious D, the Packers were able to beat the two-time (in the Roethlisberger/Hines Ward/Troy Polamalu/James Harrison era) Super Bowl Champions.
In league full of copycats, Pittsburgh would be wise to expect more of the same from their opponents throughout 2011. However, only a handful of teams have the means to execute such a specific game plan against one of the most talented and experienced rosters in the NFL. The following is a list of those teams.
If anyone is capable of spreading out a premier defense and picking it apart it is the New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees is the NFL’s most accurate passer, and like the Green Bay Packers, he has a number of weapons at his disposal to keep the Pittsburgh defense guessing.
With Mark Ingram, this writer’s favorite for Offensive Rookie of the Year, fans could be seeing a more balanced Saints’ offense. Ingram should provide an element that will make Brees an even more dangerous quarterback—the play-action pass.
We all know where the New York Jets’ outspoken head coach Rex Ryan stands when it comes to this season: Super Bowl or bust. To do that, it is likely they are going to have to go through the Steel City, something they failed to do last season.
The jury is still out as to whether or not the Jets improved on the roster from 2010. A lot of that will depend on whether or not Plaxico Burress is better than Braylon Edwards. If Plax is in his New York Giants form, this team could prove to be trouble for Pittsburgh.
Lining up opposite Burress is former Steelers' Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, who has to feel bitter about how things ended in Pittsburgh. Holmes might be the NFL’s most precise route runner, has the speed to turn a ten yard catch into an 80-yard touchdown, and the world knows about his clutch hands.
Running backs LaDanian Tomlinson and Shonne Greene are more than enough to keep any run defense honest, even the league's best. With Holmes, Burress, Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Bart Scott, the Jets are one of the few teams with the defensive and offensive firepower to hang with Pittsburgh.
The Jets are stacked with playmakers all over the field. Their fate will likely rely on the progression of Mark Sanchez—now in his third NFL season.
The Ravens have come out with a vengeance in the offseason, with seemingly every move being aimed at taking out the Steelers. The addition of Lee Evans to team with Anquan Boldin, both former Pro Bowlers, gives the Ravens their best receiving duo in franchise history.
The Ravens have tried for years to beat the kings of the AFC at their own game: hard-nosed, smash-mouth football. Now, it seems Baltimore is willing to take a page out of the Green Bay Packers’ playbook and spread out the receivers.
The Ravens will of course never abandon the run, and picked up power back Ricky Williams, as well one of the game's best full backs in Vonta Leach. This combination should be more effective in helping the Ravens pick up the grind-it-out yards for third and shorts that often determine the outcome of a close game than relying solely on speedster Ray Rice.
We all know this Ray Lewis-led defense is ready to play hard. Expect more wars in the AFC North. If they meet for a fourth time in the playoffs, game on.
The Steelers have handled every AFC power throughout the last decade. The Baltimore Ravens.The Indianapolis Colts. The New York Jets. They have not mattered the opponent; the Steel Curtain has prevailed against everyone. Except the New England Patriots.
The competitive spirit of every Steelers fan wants to dole out some sweet revenge to the Patriots for the two gut-wrenching (*cough Spygate cough*) home AFC Championship game losses.
However, in the back of every Pittsburgh fan’s mind is this: the last team they want to face en route to the Super Bowl is Tom Brady and the boys from New England.
There is no talking about Super Bowl road blocks without talking about a Green Bay Packers squad that is returning all the key players, and welcoming back a few more from injured reserve, off the team that stopped the Pittsburgh Steelers in its tracks for their seventh Super Bowl title.
Between the two teams, there are four perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Charles Woodson, Clay Matthews, Troy Polamalu, and James Harrison. There are two 1,200-yard running backs in Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Grant.
Even more, there are two of the toughest wide receivers in the league in Donald Driver and Hines Ward, and two of the biggest game-breaking receivers in the league in Greg Jennings and Mike Wallace. Then there are a pair of quarterbacks who have played the part of Super Bowl hero in Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger.
No match-up in recent memory embodies the age-old testament that football is “a game of inches” than last season’s Super Bowl. If Clay Mathews does not make the perfect, textbook helmet-on-football hit. If Ben Roethlisberger is not crushed exactly halfway through his release, there is a different outcome.
Still, we could go on: If any number of Aaron Rodgers' throws do not make that extra inch past the Steelers’ defensive backs’ outstretched fingertips. If Tramon Williams does not make the split-second lunge to break up the game’s final pass.
Is any fan of the NFL going to honestly sit there and tell me they would not want to watch these two teams go at it again? I thought not, or else you would not be reading this sentence.
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