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NFL's two best defenses to duke it out

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest defense of them all?

OK, a nursery rhyme isn’t apropos of the nasty Pittsburgh Steelers, or the Green Bay Packers for that matter. But there’s no denying the fact that the tactical approaches of our two Super Bowl teams are mirror images of each other, even if several critical performers are built differently.

They both love to blitz and attack the quarterback, and both teams can boast that they employ a Defensive Player of the Year. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu won this year’s award, and Packers cornerback Charles Woodson won last year.

Despite all the passing and all the high-scoring games this season, the league’s two best defenses ended up in spacious Cowboys Stadium for Super Bowl XLV (FOX pregame at 2 p.m. ET, game time at 6 p.m.).

Interestingly, both teams know how to approach a zone-blitz scheme, considering the defensive coordinators — Pittsburgh’s Dick LeBeau and Green Bay’s Dom Capers — used to work together, yes, for the Steelers in the early 1990s, when Bill Cowher was head coach.

Hall of Famer LeBeau, though, is credited with first using the zone-blitz in the late 1980s while with the Cincinnati Bengals, where he had a unique playmaker in safety David Fulcher, who was as physical and as quick as any linebacker. Both coaches are extremely creative in how they position and use their defenders, although Capers may have a better overall secondary based on the spectacular play of cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields in the playoffs.

This is the fourth time in Super Bowl history in which the regular season’s top two scoring defenses will meet for the Lombardi Trophy. The top defense has won two of the previous three games, meaning that the Steelers, who allowed only 14.5 points a game this season, may have a slight edge over the Packers. Pittsburgh also edged the Packers in the sack department, 48 to 47.

It was a defensive play that decided last year’s Super Bowl — Tracy Porter’s interception return for a touchdown in the second half led the Saints to their first championship.

Green Bay Packers

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But I have to believe the best quarterback will decide this game. Last accurate man standing is my thought.

Fans and the Vegas bookies have fallen in love with Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers. It’s the only explanation why a 10-6 team, one struggling to make the playoffs a month ago, was made a favorite over the Steelers, a team that has 13 players with two Super Bowl rings. Pittsburgh is going for its third title — seventh Super Bowl overall — in six seasons. The Packers have only two players who have played in a Super Bowl, and they both lost.

Yes, Rodgers has a quicker release than big, bad Ben Roethlisberger. But Roethlisberger also has a comparable fastball. Plus, he shrugs off the big takedowns. He laughed this week about getting smacked up high. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “I kind of like being able to smell around a corner now,” referring to his broken nose. “I got a chuckle when (Baltimore’s) Terrell Suggs moaned to me about how hard it was to get me on the ground.”

And don’t forget Big Ben is 10-2 in the playoffs, second only to Hall-of-Famer Bart Starr (9-1) based on winning percentages.

Both quarterbacks threw well in practice this week. They both are extremely confident players. The Steelers can’t afford to allow Rodgers to get hot and into a rhythm early, especially in Green Bay’s four wide spread offense. And the Packers better be able to stuff Rashard Mendenhall, or Big Ben could torch them deep with the game’s fastest threat in Mike Wallace.

Yes, these two teams can play defense, but either Rodgers or Roethlisberger will be standing on the podium with the MVP trophy. Their play will decide this game.

SUPER BOWL XLV: Pittsburgh vs. Green Bay
TIME: (FOX pregame at 2 p.m. ET, game time at 6 p.m.).

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: When these two teams met in the 2009 regular season, the Packers lost 37-36 on a game-ending Ben Roethlisberger 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace. Both defenses stunk that afternoon.

Roethlisberger passed for a club-record 503 yards. The final total of 886 passing yards was the fourth-highest all-time in a game. But there are two significant differences on both rosters since that game.

Josh Bell, who had tight coverage on Wallace right at the end zone pylon, is one of 16 Packers on injured-reserve this season — Green Bay has a much improved secondary this season — and Pittsburgh’s offensive line is playing with three new starters. Center Doug Legursky is starting his first NFL game with talented Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) sidelined.

Look immediately for Packers outsided linebacker Clay Matthews, their leading sacker, to see whether he can shoot a gap against the nervous Legursky. How this undrafted center plays against nose tackle B.J. Raji and the rest of Green Bay’s defense could decide how well Roethlisberger fares.

The Steelers did stun the New York Jets with their power running game — Mendenhall ran like a raging bull — and Green Bay must plan on stopping it before the Packers can focus on the passing game.

There is a chance, because of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians’ confidence in Roethlisberger’s play-calling, that Pittsburgh could also use a no-huddle offense and possibly other gimmicks in order to prevent the Packers from substituting liberally from their base defensive package.

The Steelers are a rugged bunch on defense with six starters over 30. They will be looking to put a lick on Aaron Rodgers early in this game. They have the best linebacking corps in football, and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons is as good rushing the quarterback as LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. I wouldn’t put it past any Steeler to take a borderline shot in order to knock Rodgers from the game with so much at stake.

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“This is probably the only Super Bowl ever that the players from either team could jump in the defensive huddle and understand the terminology and probably run the defense,” Pittsburgh’s LeBeau said.

To combat the Pittsburgh pressure, look for the Packers to slide their offensive line protection in order to protect Rodgers’ blindside. Pittsburgh’s defenders are sure tacklers, and I don’t suspect Rodgers will be able to escape as many rushers as he has in previous games. With Troy Polamalu playing a center field role in the defense, Rodgers will throw either quickly to the outside or deep to the outside to his quartet of receivers led by Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, who is expected to start despite sitting out three days of practice here to rest a quad injury. The Packers believe they can beat Pittsburgh cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden.

It’s also looking like rookie outside linebacker Frank Zombo will return to the starting lineup in place of an injured Erik Walden for the Packers. The Packers may not have an answer for Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller unless Woodson eyes him all over the field. Miller may be the game’s best all-around tight end; he’s a great blocker.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Because of the icy weather, both teams were forced to practice indoors during the week, and neither facility had a roof high enough for the teams’ kickers and punters to work. Steelers punter Jeremy Kapinos damaged a ceiling insulation tile at TCU on his first punt Wednesday, and he didn’t attempt another one. Both teams had to send their kickers and punters to Cowboys Stadium to practice alone late in the week.

Of the 32 NFL owners, 17 of them have never experienced a work stoppage and consequently the negative fallout that could come with turning off the fans with no football next season.

The most lavish party of the week probably was Dallas owner Jerry Jones’ bash Thursday night at Cowboys Stadium, off his private game-day suites for NFL owners and celebrities. The drink of the night was Dom Perignon.

Remember the rumor about LeBeau, 73, possibly ending up in Arizona next season? Not in retirement, but coaching the Cardinals. Well, it looks like Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler has a chance at being the Cardinals’ next defensive coordinator. Butler could be the team’s third coordinator in four seasons. The Steelers blocked Butler’s chances to leave in the past.

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If there is a lockout, most teams will pay their assistant coaches 50 cents on the dollar during off-season time. Many coaches will have an opportunity to recoup the money lost on their contracts whenever games are played or a new deal is signed with the NFL Players Association.

The Steelers are talking about placing the franchise tag on OLB LaMarr Woodley, who will be an unrestricted free agent. Meanwhile, they will attempt to sign him to a long-term contract before the deadline. Pittsburgh CB Ike Taylor, though, plans to test the free-agent market whenever there is one.

Both the Steelers and the Packers have won close games in this postseason, and both have come up with critical defensive stops to secure those wins. The Steelers’ front wall stuffed Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson at the 1-yard line in the AFC Championship game on fourth down with 7:44 left, while the Packers came up with two interceptions in the final 40 seconds to secure their wins over Philadelphia and then Chicago in the NFC title game. The Packers have even returned interceptions for touchdowns in two straight playoff games.

The Packers have actually improved in the postseason, allowing only 69.7 rushing yards a game after allowing 114.9 yards during the season. And after allowing 23 rushes of 15 yards of more during the season, the Packers haven’t allowed one such run in 59 attempts in three playoff games.

Rodgers has always denied that he didn’t suffer a concussion when hit high by Chicago’s Julius Peppers in the NFC championship game. Peppers bloodied his lip and was flagged 15 yards for a helmet hit. It is news, though, that Rodgers is wearing a customized Schutt AiR XP helmet, one he doesn’t particularly like, after suffering his second concussion against Detroit late in the season.

Tagged: Packers, Jets, Steelers, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, LaMarr Woodley, Mike Wallace

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