By Rick Morris
As is tradition for this column, let’s start with some great links to accompany it:
By now, every major angle relating to the participants has been chewed over extensively in the media. Here are the most interesting ones:
^ The collective history of the two franchises is immense, potentially the greatest such combined amount in the history of the Super Bowl.
^ Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers, perhaps the game’s two finest 3-4 tacticians, are going head-to-head with a multitude of great weapons to turn loose.
^ The media has followed the template of ten years ago, when Ray Lewis’ complicity in the deaths of two young men at the previous year’s Super Bowl but was held up as a model human being once his team made the big game. Big Ben has benefited from similar velvet-glove treatment this week for having “changed.” It’s a sad-but-predictable reflection on today’s major media.
^ Speaking of Ben, he and Aaron Rodgers continue a decent run of top-flight QB matchups in the Super Bowl. The last quarterback not at a consensus upper-tier level coming into the game was Eli Manning three years ago. Roethlisberger can move very close to Hall of Fame status in the minds of many with a third Super Bowl title in his young career.
^ Both teams are dealing with difficult injuries. The Packers’ situation with an incredible NFC-leading 16 players on injured reserve (including star running back Ryan Grant and emerging super-talented tight end Jermichael Finley) is almost unfathomable – think of how much better they should be next season! But when you consider how far they’ve made it without their key contributors, it becomes apparent that the Steelers’ fewer – but more recent – losses may be even more costly. In particular, the loss of young star center Maurkice Pouncey could be devastating. That blow to an already-teetering Pittsburgh offensive line could be fatal.
^ Few if any recent Super Bowls have paired two teams who backed in quite so emphatically on Championship Sunday. It’s unusual to have two teams ending their games with the “sigh of relief” instead of shriek of euphoria.
^ However, notwithstanding the second half of their last game, the Packers are certainly the hot team of the moment, managing to become field-goal favorites despite coming into the playoffs as the #6 seed in the inferior conference. They are favored by many based on having blazed an uphill path to the big game similar to that of the Steelers five years ago and the Giants three years ago.
Speaking of those ’05 Steelers, they had Hines Ward in one WR spot, as did the subsequent Pittsburgh Super Bowl teams, but each of the three has had another man in the key spot across from him stretching the defense. In ’05, it was Antwaan Randle El, in ’08 it was Santonio Holmes and this year it is Mike Wallace. While Wallace emerged as one of the preeminent deep threats in the league this year, teams have worked to mitigate his impact in the playoffs and the superlative Green Bay secondary is going to make that a prime focus again. If Capers draws up even more of his patented blitzes to try to exploit Pouncey’s absence, it would put Wallace in man coverage; however, the flip side of this development would be Roethlisberger’s inability to chuck the ball deep to beat the blitz unless he’s in the shotgun – which he probably won’t be to a great degree.
That brings us to Pittsburgh’s run game, which was key to their win over the Jets in the AFC Championship Game. When Rashard Mendenhall is greatly effective, the Steelers are extraordinarily difficult to beat. The insertion of backup center Doug Legursky is going to be the most important element of the game, because of all the cascading effects that will flow from there.
Pittsburgh wants to control the clock to disrupt the rhythm of the red-hot Green Bay offense, which is all the more lethal on a fast track like the one in the Dallas dome. It’s a concept that has been seen previously in Super Bowls when superior offenses have been thrown out of rhythm – with Buffalo 20 years ago in Super Bowl 25 and St. Louis in Super Bowl 36 serving as excellent examples. And as hot as the Pack has been recently, keep in mind that their offense didn’t put any more points on the board after the initial first two TDs at Soldier Field two weeks ago. With Green Bay having the capacity to deliver both blitz sacks and coverage sacks (the latter due to the awesome secondary, including nickel and dime depth), Pittsburgh won’t need much persuasion to pound the ball as long as they can. Mendenhall will get the ball more than 20 times and his backup, Isaac Redman, may be a factor as well given that he averaged 4.8 YPC this season. It is in large part because of Pittsburgh’s ground capacity that they tallied 34:28 and 34:41 in time of possession in the AFC playoffs.
Given the fact that the Steelers have been almost without peer in recent years in psyching teams out of logical plans of attack, fear of Mendenhall represents the biggest path to blowing this game for Packer coach Mike McCarthy. The Packers put up 32:00, 38:19 and 34:04 in time of possession throughout the NFC playoffs and, given the fact that their run defense is the closest they have to a soft underbelly on that side of the ball, they risk preemptively hobbling their explosive passing game. The team’s Super Bowl berth is all the more incredible for not having adequately addressed the injury loss of Grant after Week 1. Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn floundered, leaving the door open for James Starks to emerge during the playoffs. He put up carry/yard totals of 23-123, 25-66 and 22-74 in the three NFC playoff games.
Even a casual observer can note from those lines that Starks was amazing in his out-of-nowhere performance against Philadelphia and extremely mortal against Atlanta and Chicago. Indeed, the Packers’ potential “choke scenario” may have been previewed at Soldier Field, as McCarthy ordered the team to pound the ball as the offense eventually faltered. Now, his strategy might have had something to do with the abysmal game conditions in Chicago that day and the “painted mud” that covered the field in many spots, but if he orders a similar strategy in the dome in lieu of letting Rodgers pick apart Pittsburgh’s mediocre secondary, he will be making an unforgivable mistake.
Sharp viewers of our web TV program THE FDH LOUNGE (Tuesdays, 7-10 PM EST on SportsTalkNetwork.com) will note that my game pick is going to be different from what I offered on last week’s show. At that time, colored a bit by my long experience as a Steeler-hating pessimist who had seen so many teams fail to attack Pittsburgh in their areas of vulnerability, I forecast a 24-20 Steeler win with Rashard Mendenhall as MVP. I believe that I threw in a mocking impression of Mike McCarthy saying, “We don’t want to score 49 points in only 20 minutes; that would be bad.” Since then, I have come around, with the Pouncey injury serving as the tipping point as I see it. I do not believe that the pass protection or run protection for Pittsburgh will be adequate to the task of imposing their will or disrupting the Green Bay offensive rhythm. While I would not rule out the Steelers coming back in a full-blown shootout against most teams (and indeed, they did prevail 37-36 in just such a game last season), the current state of the Green Bay secondary makes this most unlikely. Besides, as hard as it is to believe, no team has ever overcome a greater deficit in a Super Bowl than the 10-0 hole that Washington climbed out of in Super Bowl 22. Without the vaunted Steeler ground game presenting the potential for Mike McCarthy to psych himself out and keep Rodgers from doing what he clearly can do, riddle the outmatched Steeler secondary by spreading the field, the Packers look to complete their “Brett Who?” campaign and secure the MVP for Rodgers. Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 20.