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Let’s get this out of the way early: I’m picking the Packers to win the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Way back in August (and, really, if you must know, it was more like last January), I swung myself onto the Green Bay bandwagon.  I felt like they had everything you need: an elite, playmaking quarterback, an attacking defense that hits the quarterback and turns the ball over, a coach who keeps the team steady and focused.  Having just lost a heartbreaker in overtime in Arizona, a game they had every right to feel they should have won, the Packers also had that bad taste in their mouth all offseason, and it seemed to me to follow that they were going to be hungry.   I expected them to be here, and I see no point in hopping off now that the wagon is hauling ass for a championship.

Of course, the Pittsburgh Steelers have all those qualities, and if you clicked that link you know I picked them to miss the playoffs.  Never mind that they just won a Super Bowl two years ago with a very similar roster.  Never mind that my favorite thing to say about the Steelers is that they just know how to win.  I saw the utter debacle that was second half of their 2009 (which included home losses to the Browns and Raiders), the losses on both lines, the Big Ben suspension, the Ravens’ improvements, the Bengals’ 6-0 record in the North and figured (hoped?) this just wasn’t the Steelers’ year.

Shame on me.  I, of all people, should have known better.

So here we sit, a bit more than 24 hours prior to kickoff, with two of the most historically successful franchises in the NFL ready to strap it on one last time for the 2010 season.  From 20,000 feet it looks like two outstanding teams with comparable attributes and approaches.  Here’s how I see it going down.

When The Steelers Have The Ball

Do not get caught thinking the Packers are the only team in this game capable of exploding for big points.  The Steelers have that.  They proved it when they won the last meeting between these teams, a 37-36 Heinz Field barnburner in December 2009.

Let’s start up front.  Among the many similarities between these teams is a reputation for shakiness on the O-line.  In Pittsburgh, this is a result of injury as much as anything.  They lost both starting tackles before the season started.  Flozell Adams was a stroke of good fortune as a replacement at right tackle, and Maurkice Pouncey is one of the finest rookie trench-dwellers in recent memory.  But now he’s gone too, and you can rest assured that Dom Capers is going to test a backup center charged with blocking BJ Raji.

The Bloodline will look to be the first Matthews to win a Super Bowl.

Big Ben has been here, done this.

There’s a key here.  The Sausage King of Pittsburgh gets sacked a lot in part because he holds the ball longer than most quarterbacks, which he gets away with because he is able to shake off sacks and avoid the ground better than most quarterbacks (which to a degree negates Capers’ use of defensive backs to blitz- they can’t tackle him).  This allows Roethlisberger to extend plays and find an open man.  The Green Bay defense is uniquely positioned to deal with this threat, particularly up the middle.  Everyone knows all about Clay Matthews III’s ability to get to the quarterback around the edge.  He’s fast, powerful, and does not stay blocked.  But one of his key weapons, and one that could come in handy against Pittsburgh, is the inside blitz with Matthews delaying his rush from the outside, hiding behind the wall, and then bursting around through the center- often running square into a quarterback conditioned to step up into a pocket collapsing from the edges.

But here’s the thing.  Even if Matthews or one of the other pass rushers gets to Roethlisberger, they absolutely must put him on the ground, pronto.  Because if they don’t, he’s going to KILL them downfield.  I don’t think anybody in Green Bay wants to see what happens if any of their DB’s are forced to run with Mike Wallace for more than a couple seconds.  In fact, as much as I like the Packers’ DB’s from a playmaking standpoint, I don’t like the matchups here across the board.  If Ben consistently has time, the field is going to be stretched, Hines Ward is going to find the necessary holes underneath to keep the chains moving, and the Steelers receivers are going to make plays all day.

The other key here involves what used to be Pittsburgh Steelers football: the power running game.  Largely absent the past few seasons as a result of both a weakened offensive line and lack of depth at the running back position, it returned in a big way in the AFC Championship game against New York.  Rashard Mendenhall found huge holes, gashed the Jets’ D with chunks of yardage, and controlled the entire first half of the football game.  If they run like that, I don’t think they can be beaten, because any defense that has to regularly put an extra man in the box against these modern Steelers is going to pay for it in Mike Wallace touchdowns.  On the other hand, the Packers can convince the Steelers they need to pass to win, the tempo of the game will necessarily favor the Pack.

When The Packers Have The Ball

I’ll bottom line this for you: If the Steelers are to hoist their 7th Lombardi, they are going to have to hit Aaron Rodgers early and often, because they cannot cover the Green Bay receiving threats.

I mean that as thoroughly and precisely as possible.  Aaron Rodgers will absolutely destroy this secondary if he is allowed to make reads, or worse- hit his first read.  Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson are as deep and talented a receiving corps as you will find in this league, and led by Rodgers’ deadly accuracy and every-throw-in-the-playbook arm, have shown the ability to torch even the best defenses when they’re clicking.  There are only viable two solutions to a West Coast-based system when it is talented and in sync.  One, disrupt the complex, coordinated timing of the quarterback’s footwork and the receivers’ routes by chucking receivers at the line.  Two, I repeat: they must get to the quarterback.

Of course, it’s not like we’re talking about a defense to which that is an unfamiliar task- or achievement.  Year after year, the Steelers get to the quarterback as frequently, efficiently and violently as any defense in the NFL.  The best linebacking group in the game wrecks havock on backfields. James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley on the edges, Lawrence Timmons and the gritty veteran James Farrior are a matchup nightmare.

He's freaking everywhere!

And, lest you focus your attention elsewhere, this is where I remind you that despite all those guys, Aaron Rodgers’ first job at the line is to find #43.  Always an X-factor, safety Troy Polamalu has the unique ability to sniff out plays and singlehandedly create sacks and turnovers.  Despite my feeling that others were more deserving this year, Polamalu won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award for good reason.  Green Bay needs to account for him on every snap.

As we said with Pittsburgh, Green Bay’s running game has been less than stellar in recent  years, but appears rejuvenated and robust of late.  Everybody’s preseason fantasy darling, James Starks, appeared as if from nowhere to present a dangerous rushing attack.  He’s got fresh legs, swivel hips, a blunt shoulder and a nose for the paint.  But the Steelers are a different animal against the run.  The primary reason they’ve been so successful at getting to the quarterback over the years is because they constantly have teams in one-dimensional situations after totally shutting down the run, allowing the Pittsburgh linebackers to pin their ears back and sack-seek.  If the Packers can run effectively, it is going to be a long day for Steelers fans.

Green Bay’s quarterback and offensive line have had a story somewhat similar to Pittsburgh’s.  A playmaking QB who holds it too long behind an already suspect offensive line leads to any number of issues, most notably, in these two cases anyway, inconsistency.  But Rodgers seems to have absorbed the lesson and has spent this season getting rid of the ball on time at the latest.  He has an outstanding sense of the anticipatory throw, and puts it into targets other quarterbacks would ignore.  And he’s got a group of big, fast receivers who make plays.  When the Packers’ offense is on, there is almost nothing that can be done to stop them.

In sum, I expect a fantastic, physical, high-scoring game between two teams that are immensely similar.  All the old clichés are true here.  The game will certainly be won up front. The game will probably be won by the team who best protects their quarterback and the football.  The game will probably be won on the arm of a great quarterback.  And the game will probably be won in the fourth quarter.

The Chico Kid, my predictive XLV MVP.

I expect to see a lot of exciting plays in the passing game.  I expect to see some vicious (but legal!) hits.  I expect to see both teams lead the game multiple times.  I expect both defenses to play well and still give up plenty of points.  I expect Aaron Rodgers to be the Super Bowl MVP.  And, in the end, I expect the Green Bay Packers to take the Vince Lombardi Trophy home with them to where it all began. 

PACKERS 33, STEELERS 30.

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