Packers' three keys to the Super Bowl
Posted: February 6, 2011 1:15 p.m. CT
By BILL HUBER
The Packers won't be able to run the ball, not against one of the all-time great run defenses (62.8 yards per game; 3.0 yards per carry). So, expect Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense to spread the field and take advantage of their matchups on the perimeter. That plan won't work, though, if they can't protect Rodgers.
That means it's up to left tackle Chad Clifton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga to hold up against the relentless pass rush that comes from James Harrison (vs. Clifton) and LaMarr Woodley (against Bulaga). They've combined for 25.5 sacks in 18 games. The Packers have no chance if the tackles can't hold up.
To help the tackles, Rodgers and the offense like to get out of the huddle with 20 or 22 seconds on the play clock. That allows Rodgers to either snap the ball before they can disguise their coverage or blitzes or to diagnose what they're doing to get everybody in the right spot.
"I think you have to have a balance," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "If you can tell where they're coming from, I think you want to take as much time as you can. You've seen us use both answers. We're not going to go into a game saying, 'Let's snap the ball with 2 seconds left every time.' I'm not sure that's the right to go. By the same token, if we're playing up tempo and we're running a lot of plays where we don't adjust a whole lot and they're hitting us with blitzes that the scheme that we have called isn't the right one or they've timed it up well, then you may want to take a little more time. I think you don't go all-in unless one phase of it is working extremely well."
As always for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the key is to stop the run. The Packers didn't do it well this season, with their 4.7 yards allowed per carry tied for second-worst in the NFL in the regular season. Through three playoff games, though, the Packers have allowed merely 209 rushing yards and 3.5 yards per carry.
Pittsburgh's Rashard Mendenhall rushed for 1,273 yards, 13 touchdowns and 3.9 yards per carry in the regular season and 167 yards, three touchdowns and 3.6 yards a pop in the playoffs. If they can't stop the run without selling out, Capers won't be able to blitz and Roethlisberger will have time to find game-breaker Mike Wallace.
"The thing that Ben does, he's got great pocket instincts, he's big and strong and obviously hard to get off his feet," Capers said. "He can extend the play as well as anybody in the National Football League and you can have a defense designed where you have a free guy, and many times that free guy doesn't get him (Roethlisberger) to the ground. And the more people you're committing to the rush, now you're stringing out a little bit in coverage and his receivers do a great job when he extends the play of uncovering. With a guy like Hines Ward, they've worked together so long that he knows when Ben is going to step out of the pocket or move to the right and Ben can throw anywhere on the field. It makes him extremely hard to defend."
After a gauntlet of big-time returners have put the Packers' coverage units behind the eight-ball all season, Green Bay enters this game on relatively even ground against Pittsburgh. The X-factor could be Pittsburgh's Emmanuel Sanders, who averaged a robust 25.1 yards per kickoff return this season. In a game in which every yard could be precious with these stout defenses, the Packers can't afford to let Sanders get loose against their suspect kickoff coverage. So, expect the usual mix-and-match of kickoffs from Mason Crosby.
"We watch a lot of film on (opposing team) returns," Crosby said. "There are different things and game-time stuff that comes in, like if different returns have been hurting us we might change things up. We've done a lot of different things as far as changing it up. Last week in Chicago, we had a great special teams game. You have to do those things so that they're just not running at you all the time. The kickoff game has kind of changed in that sense. Especially when it's cold, you have to do some different things because you're just not going to be able to kick the ball as deep. Hopefully, here we can just kick it deep and go cover them."
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and Packer Report Magazine. PackerReport.com is the only all-Packers Web site that publishes stories and features 365 days a year. The 64-page, full-color magazine was founded by Ray Nitschke in 1973 and is published 10 times a year. Click here for subscription information.