Here are 10 things worth keeping an eye on in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLV between the Steelers and Packers:
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Doug Legursky against B.J. Raji. The Steelers offensive line is banged up all over the place — four out of the five linemen who began the year as starters will not play on Sunday — but never is the contrast so pronounced as it is at center, where Pittsburgh will be leaning on backup Legursky against one of the best young nose tackles in the game in Raji. The Packers will be looking to attack the Steelers’ weakened front across the board, but Green Bay’s edge in the middle is too big to ignore. If the Packers are able to get consistent pressure on Roethlisberger — especially up the middle, as the Patriots did in November — the Packers can change the game.
Flozell Adams vs. Clay Matthews. In that same vein, much of Green Bay’s pressure starts with this pass-rushing linebacker. The former USC stud finished second in the NFC in sacks and second in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting, and his 13 1/2 sacks led a Green Bay pass rush that finished second in the NFL with 47 sacks. (Matthews has 3 1/2 more sacks in the playoffs for good measure.) However, unlike most pass rushing stars that come at the quarterback from the blind side (left), Matthews usually lines up opposite the right tackle — in this case, veteran Flozell Adams. It’ll be a matchup of youthful speed (Matthews) against veteran strength (Adams), with the winner playing a big role in the overall success of his team.
“That guy is amazing,” Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace said of Matthews. “He was on my team last year in the Senior Bowl. I saw him earlier before he even got drafted. So now, it’s just like I don’t even know what he can do, but we’re going to find out. We know what he is and what he’s capable of, so we’ll be watching.”
Tempo. Despite the fact that they are a more diversified offense than many Steeler teams of the past — they finished the season tied for second in the league with 62 pass plays of 20 yards or more — Pittsburgh still loves to play old-school, grind-it-out football. In particular, the Steelers love to run the ball to establish tempo with Rashard Mendenhall. (Mendenhall has rushed for 167 yards and three touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s two playoff games.) Even with a banged up offensive line, they will try and do the same thing on Sunday against the Packers, doing what they can to keep Aaron Rodgers and the up-tempo Green Bay offense off the field. But if Green Bay is able to bottle up the Pittsburgh running game early, it can turn the Steelers into a one-dimensional team, and that will make things much easier for the Packers and defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
When opportunity knocks… The Steelers have been excellent this postseason at taking advantage of opponents’ letdowns. When the Ravens stumbled in the second half of their divisional playoff matchup against Pittsburgh, the Steelers pounced. In the AFC Championship Game, the Jets came out flat and Pittsburgh seized control, scoring enough first-half points to give them just enough of a cushion down the stretch. One of those opportunities could come against a blitzing Green Bay defense — the Packers love to take their shots, and as a result, one of Pittsburgh’s receivers (Mike Wallace? Hines Ward? Emmanuel Sanders?) could be open deep in single coverage as a result.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Giving Aaron Rodgers time. The Steelers love to bring pressure in their 3-4 scheme with outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. While Rodgers remains one of he more mobile quarterbacks in the league, the Packers will likely be focused on having him get rid of the ball as soon as possible, as Pittsburgh’s pressure can still be disruptive enough even when it comes to a quarterback with a three-step drop. On one side, there’s Chad Clifton against James Harrison, but the matchup really worth keying on is rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga against Woodley — if Bulaga can keep Woodley out of the backfield long enough, it should give Rodgers enough time to operate.
“Not only can he throw the ball, but he can beat you with his legs,” Woodley said of Rodgers. ”We have to a great job of keeping him in the pocket. When we get back there we have to wrap him up because once he gets out of the pocket he can really move around.”
Using the Steelers’ aggressiveness against them. Pittsburgh has a tendency to overpursue, and can be drawn in with play fakes, draws, screens and reverses. Even though the Packers don’t figure to run the ball all that much against the Steelers — who feature the No. 2 run defense in the league — Green Bay will likely try and use play-action to create some favorable matchups downfield in the passing game.
Keeping tabs on Troy. Safety Troy Polamalu is rarely where you expect him to be — that’s one of the reasons he’s as good as he is — but chances are that Green Bay is going to try and spread things out with a three-receiver set. That could force Polamalu to spend more time in coverage. Regardless, expect Rodgers to keep an eye out for Polamalu every time the quarterback breaks the huddle.
“You just have to know where he’s at,” Rodgers said of Polamalu, who has 17 interceptions in the last three seasons, including seven in 2010. “He’s a great blitzer. He’s a good cover guy, he’s got good ball skills, so it’s going to be important to figure out where he’s at. But we’re going to make sure that if he’s coming under pressure, we’ve at least got somebody getting his initial draft.”
Option play. The Packers had the fifth-best passing offense in the league over the course of the season, and while Rodgers is obviously a big part of that, it’s also due to the fact that he has some excellent options. While rookie James Starks and the rest of the running game usually does just enough to keep opposing defenses honest, Green Bay can go five-deep at wide receiver —they’ve flashed four-wide on several occasions this season — with options like Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Jordy Nelson, many of whom are versatile enough to line up at multiple spots.
“With our offense, you know every position in the playbook —not just ‘X’ receiver or ‘Z’ receiver,” Nelson said. “We rotate all the way around — inside and outside, left and right. So you have to be on your toes with everything, and I think Aaron feels comfortable with all of us out there.”
A wash. Neither team has a special teams edge — both are relatively solid in both the punt and kicking games. When it comes to numbers, the only guy who might stand out is Emmanuel Sanders, who has averaged more than 25 yards per kickoff return and has occasionally flashed the breakaway speed needed for an impact return. When it comes to the kickers, the Steelers’ Shaun Suisham probably has a slight edge on Green Bay’s Mason Crosby — Suisham has gone 16 of 18 on field-goal attempts, while Crosby is 24-for-31 on field-goal attempts (both including the playoffs).
Act like you’ve been here before. The core of the Steelers has big-game experience, particularly in comparison to the Packers. Pittsburgh is in its third Super Bowl in six seasons, while the Packers haven’t been to the big game since 1997. In fact, the Packers have only two players on their roster with Super Bowl experience — cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Ryan Pickett — and both played on losing teams. (Packers running back John Kuhn was on the Steelers’ practice squad in 2006 and got a ring after Pittsburgh beat Seattle that year, but Kuhn did not play in the game.) If Green Bay comes out awed by the big stage, it could present an opportunity for the Steelers to grab the early edge. In addition, if things are close late, that Super Bowl experience should also give an edge to Pittsburgh.
However, Green Bay tight end Donald Lee doesn’t believe that experience will play a factor.
“I look at it like the hungry dog hunts harder than the fat dog,” Lee said. “And we have a lot of hungry dogs in this locker room that are willing to do whatever it takes to win that game. I’m sure they’re willing to do what it takes, too, but if I was a betting man, I’d bet my money on the hungry dog.”