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Steelers vs. Packers at first glance
Prepare yourself, folks.
During the next two weeks, you’re going to be hit over the head with more Super Bowl discussion and debate than you might be able to physically handle. As someone far smarter and pithier than me once described the two weeks before the Super Bowl — we’re about to enter the “”paralysis of analysis” zone.
Yes, until Feb. 6, you’re going to read and hear it all. We’ll be flooded with all the many lessons Aaron Rodgers learned or didn't learn from Brett Favre, the lessons Sam Shields and Tramon Williams have learned from Charles Woodson and the lessons Ben Roethlisberger learned after taking that fateful trip down to Milledgeville, Ga., last summer.
We’ll see more than enough NFL Films footage from two franchises that have combined for 18 league championships and 49 Pro Football Hall of Famers, hear the name Lombardi even more than usual, and maybe — just maybe — get a few Lynn Swann highlights.
Screaming talking heads on TV will debate if Dick LeBeau’s the “greatest defensive mind ever,” they’ll shout at each other until they're red in the face over which of these two die-hard fan bases is the superior clan, and they’ll lose their breath over some worthless argument surrounding Terrible Towels and cheese-shaped hats made of foam. Points will be made, heads will be nodded and there will be countless laughs at jokes that aren't funny.
The Black Eyed Peas will be involved in a news story at some point, and so might a media-starved ex-player promoting a soup product or fashionable sports drink. Media Day will bring out the freaks, the few days following Media Day will feature members of the media grasping at straws for far-reaching angles that haven’t been exhausted, and the bookmakers out in Vegas will share their exotic prop bets to a nation salivating for something new to chew on.
As for the actual football?
You’d be surprised, but there usually isn't that much X’s and O’s discussed during these two endless weeks of buildup. If there’s anything that’s lacking from the dead zone between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, it’s the actual analysis of the game, itself.
In truth, this one has all the makings of a classic. Off the field, it has all those bells and whistles, too. On the field? It should be awesome. Here are my five first-glance things to watch for in a Steelers-Packers Super Bowl.
1. The two 3-4 masters and the quarterbacks who just don’t go down: With apologies to Rex Ryan and Wade Phillips, defensive coordinators Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau are the top two 3-4 defensive minds in the NFL, and between them, combine for more than 50 years of NFL coaching experience. The difference in their respective Super Bowl game plans, of course, will be the two quarterbacks their respective pass-rush happy 3-4 defenses will be facing.
Capers, a former NFL head coach with both the Panthers and Texans, relies on endless pass rushing pursuit from All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might not evade Matthews with agility and sheer speed, but Roethlisberger’s nearly impossible to bring down at first contact. His carnival of pump fakes and dips and dunks, paired with an uncanny ability to find receivers in stride on third-and-long, make him just about immune to a ferocious pass rush.
Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, is the closest thing to Steve Young that we’ve seen since the 49ers Hall of Fame quarterback retired in 2000. In addition to his Young-like accuracy, Rodgers is arguably the top scrambling quarterback in the NFL. And that includes Michael Vick. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley might get to Rodgers in the Super Bowl, but his ability to make nothing out of something with his feet creates a potential matchup problem for LeBeau and his hard-charging defense.
Everyone knows about Roethlisberger and Rodgers’ incredible arms and their ability to hit receivers downfield. Their abilities to evade hard-pressing pass rushers, though, could actually play bigger roles in determining the better team in Dallas.
Either way, both Capers and LeBeau's game plans will be fascinating to watch unfold.
2. The Packers and their newly found running game: During the preseason, I sat with a few friends who’d just finished their fantasy football draft. One of my buddies, a cat named Scott, obnoxiously boasted all afternoon about his “Sleeper Pick of the Year” — Packers running back James Starks. Scott, of course, is one of the seven State University of New York — Buffalo football fans in America, and thus, had a bit of a paternal love for Starks, his fellow Buffalo Bull.
After a season battling injuries and finding himself in and out of the active lineup, Starks finally made an impact on the Packers' offense in the final month of the season. During the playoffs? He’s provided the necessary balance to a Packers offense that struggled to find a running game for the bulk of the season.
In Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Chicago, Starks carried the ball 22 times for 74 yards with a touchdown. In Green Bay’s three postseason games, he’s averaged 23.3 carries a game. Heading into the playoffs, everyone pointed to the Packers’ running game as the team’s Achilles’ heel.
Now? It’s a strength.
Starks didn't do much for Scott's fantasy football team, but he's doing a heck of a lot for the Packers this month.
Of course, for all of his success this postseason, James Starks hasn’t seen anything like the Steelers’ defense, which gave up an NFL all-time best 63 rushing yards per game in 2010.
The Jets, one of the top rushing teams in the game, scrapped for just 70 yards on Sunday. New York's the only team to top the 100-yard mark all season vs. the Steelers, and did so in Week 15.
The spotlight will be on bigger names, but James Starks — the former Buffalo Bull — might be the most important player on the field in Dallas.
3. The fast start: After Jim Cornelison’s riveting rendition of the national anthem got a frenzied Chicago crowd rocking for Sunday's opening kickoff, the Packers started on fire and numbed any momentum the Bears might have had in the early moments of the NFC Championship Game. You know that image of a balloon being popped by a pin and weezing its way into oblivion? That was Soldier Field five minutes into Sunday's game.
The Packers’ first offensive series could serve as a study for high school football teams looking to analyze “The Perfect Drive.” Rodgers completed four passes for 76 yards and scrambled for the game’s first score. They scored on a Starks touchdown a few minutes later, stretching the lead to 14-0. The rest was history.
A few hours later in Pittsburgh, the Steelers opened the game with a clock-eating nine-minute scoring drive and jumped to an early 7-0 lead. They’d extend that lead to 24 points before giving up 19 consecutive to close out the game. Both teams started with well-defined game plans, executed them perfectly, and did enough damage in the first half to withstand late comebacks from their rivals. Though the Steelers did come back from a 14-point halftime deficit vs. the Ravens two weeks ago, it’ll be hard to do the same on a neutral field versus an offense as high-powered as Green Bay’s. The fourth quarter might be when it matters most, but those first 15 minutes could very well be when this Super Bowl is won.
4. Shootout Part II? Doubtful. The most entertaining regular-season game of the 2009 season pitted the slumping Steelers vs. the red-hot Packers in a late December aerial show at Heinz Field. Rodgers completed 26 of 48 passes for 383 yards and three touchdowns that afternoon, while Roethlisberger torched the Packers for 503 yards and three scores, including a game-winning touchdown pass to then-rookie Mike Wallace late in the fourth quarter.
What really killed the Packers in that game? Besides their horrendous pass defense? Penalties.
Five of Green Bay’s seven penalties in that Week 15 game resulted in first downs for Pittsburgh. The Steelers, as they usually do, capitalized and optimized their opportunities.
Can we expect a similar type of game two weeks from now? I highly doubt it. Rodgers and Roethlisberger are playing well, but neither of these two defenses is giving up 400 yards in the air anytime soon.
Green Bay’s two young defensive backs — Tramon Williams and Sam Shields — have played above and beyond what the Packers ever expected from them this season. Meanwhile, the Steelers defense has a certain guy with long hair named Pola-something in the defensive backfield this time around. There’s no chance Rodgers puts up the fireworks he did last season against Pittsburgh with No. 43 in the lineup.
5. The ‘Ol vets: In the end, this one might come down to veteran players making the biggest plays down the stretch. In Green Bay, there’s wide receiver Donald Driver, playing in his first Super Bowl after 12 seasons in the league, and Charles Woodson — the 1998 Heisman Trophy winner — who’ll be suiting up for his second shot at a Super Bowl after his Raiders were blown out by the Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXVII. Woodson has been waiting eight years to return to the big stage. Chad Clifton’s a longtime Packer but has yet to play in the big game, while Ryan Pickett suited up for the Rams in their loss to the Patriots back in 2001. To be certain, there haven’t been many Super Bowl highlights, let alone memories, from the Green Bay locker room.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, most of the guys suiting up on Feb. 6 already have Super Bowl rings, if not two. Three players — Larry Foote, Antwan Randle El, and Bryant McFadden — won rings with the Steelers, left to play elsewhere, only to come back for this 2010 campaign. Been there, done that? You can say that again. Even coach Mike Tomlin, in just five years in Pittsburgh, is the only head coach in NFL history to coach in two Super Bowls before age 40.
If we’ve learned anything in the past three weeks, it’s that this Packers team isn’t scared of challenges. To be certain, they do not become weeping willows when under the national spotlight. But will the bright lights of the Super Bowl be an entirely different ballgame for this year’s road warriors? Will the Steelers' edge in Super Bowl experience make a difference? From the coaching staffs down to the special teams, I can’t recall a Super Bowl matchup with a bigger differential in the two teams’ Super Bowls played.
Then again, it hasn’t fazed this Packers team this month. Why should such a silly thing as big-game experience matter now?
And now with those five things out of the way, let’s get back to what really matters . . . what song will the Black Eyed Peas open up with at halftime?
Ah, the Super Bowl. There's really nothing like it.