Offensive lines in store for big New York Life Protection challenges

BY foxsports • February 3, 2011

Protecting their star quarterback hasn't always come easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers or Green Bay Packers.

Having to go against the other's defense Sunday surely isn't going to help matters.

How well each offensive line pass protects against the NFL's top two defenses will be measured by the New York Life Protection Index, and will play an integral role in determining which of these storied franchises brings home another Super Bowl title.

The NYLPI is a proprietary formula created by STATS LLC which measures pass protection by using metrics such as length of passes, penalties by offensive lineman, sacks allowed and quarterback hurries and knockdowns.

Neither the Packers nor Steelers ranked among the top teams in the NYLPI during the regular season. Green Bay (65.3) was a modest 14th while Pittsburgh (51.1) was 26th - the second-lowest of this season's 12 playoff qualifiers.

The Steelers have fared even worse in the postseason, but still managed to reach the Super Bowl for the third time in sixth seasons by excelling in other areas; namely, running the football and dominating against the run.

In addition, it always helps to be armed with a crafty Ben Roethlisberger to make up for some of those protection deficiencies up front. The seventh-year pro looks to join Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Tom Brady as the only quarterbacks to win at least three Super Bowls.

The Steelers allowed six sacks and finished with a dismal 31.9 NYLPI during a 31-24 divisional comeback win over Baltimore on Jan. 15. But Roethlisberger still threw two touchdowns without an interception and set up Rashard Mendenhall's fourth-quarter, game-winning TD run with a 58-yard pass to Antonio Brown on 3rd-and-19.

One week later, Pittsburgh graded out at 36.7 in a 24-19 AFC Championship victory over the New York Jets. Though Roethlisberger threw a pair of interceptions without a touchdown, he made the big play when he needed to, hitting Brown for 14 yards on 3rd-and-6 late in the fourth to pick up a crucial first down allowing the Steelers to run out the clock.

Roethlisberger has also shown he can overcome a subpar effort from his line to beat the Packers specifically.

Despite being sacked six times and his line generating a pedestrian 59.9 rating, Big Ben threw for a career-best 503 yards and three touchdowns, including a remarkable 19-yard TD strike to Mike Wallace with no time left in regulation, to give the Steelers a 37-36 home win over Green Bay on Dec. 20, 2009.

While the line has struggled recently against top-notch competition, it has remained disciplined: it did not commit a single false start or holding penalty against the Jets.

That's definitely something to build on for a front five that is made up of only one holdover - left guard Chris Kemoeatu - from the 2008 Super Bowl champs. Only one player made it through this season as the starter who also started last season, with three different players starting at right guard and two each at left guard and left tackle.

Right guard Ramon Foster is the only current starter on the offensive line who started against Green Bay in 2009.

The challenge against a blitz-happy Packers defense that ranked second in average points allowed to the Steelers (15.0 to 14.5) could grow more difficult if second-team All-Pro rookie center Maurkice Pouncey misses the game with an ankle injury. Undrafted free agent Doug Legursky is likely to start in his place.

Still, the team continues to believe in a line that has done enough to put the Steelers in position to extend their NFL-record Super Bowl victory total to seven.

"Just the way this group's all come together and bought into our philosophy since the beginning of training camp, it's nice to now see all that hard work pay off," said Max Starks, who began the season at left tackle but sustained a season-ending neck injury Nov. 8.

Like Pittsburgh, Green Bay will need to step up its protection of its star, Aaron Rodgers, if it's to capture the franchise's fourth Super Bowl trophy, now named after legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

Rodgers was sacked only once during the Packers' 21-14 NFC Championship win at Chicago, but he was hurried three times, knocked down four and did not throw a touchdown while being intercepted twice. Most of the damage came in the fourth quarter, when Green Bay mustered just 16 total yards of offense.

Rodgers was also the recipient of a jarring helmet-to-helmet hit from Julius Peppers, which came after Peppers broke free around the edge. Though Peppers was flagged on the play, Rodgers appeared to feel some effects from the shot and struggled the rest of the way.

The Packers offensive line committed two false starts and two holding penalties en route to a 63.1 rating at Chicago. That's something Green Bay's lineman can't afford to repeat against NFL defensive player of the year Troy Polamalu and a Steelers unit that recorded a league-high 43 sacks during the regular season.

Last season at Pittsburgh, Rodgers was sacked just once, threw for 383 yards with three TDs and no interceptions, and ran for a score while his line finished with a season-high NYLPI of 92.3.

All but one of Green Bay's current starting offensive linemen - rookie Bryan Bulaga - started that contest.

While it's unlikely the two teams again combine for 73 points, it's very likely the ability to protect the passer will have a major effect on the game plan and determining which team walks out of Cowboys Stadium with a trophy.

"We felt like we had an opportunity last year to go all the way and fell a little short," said Packers safety Nick Collins, who could've just as easily been talking about that game at Pittsburgh a year ago.

"We just came in with the mindset that we can go all the way and everybody buying in. It's been paying off this year."

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