Super Bowl preview

4 Feb

Super Bowl XLV kicks off at 6:30 p.m. (ET) this Sunday. Odds-makers have the Green Bay Packers as 2.5 point favourites over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Every media outlet has their “experts” breaking down the matchups and making their predictions.

A lot the talk leading up to the game has been focused on the quarterback duel. It’s Ben Roethlisberger vs. Aaron Rodgers. Both are marquee players, and have been able to lead their teams to victory this season and can make a game-changing play at any moment. However, comparisons like this simply don’t matter because they’ll only be on the field at the same time during pre-game stretches and post-game handshakes. When comparing and analyzing these teams, you need to look at the matchups that can actually occur on the field.

Steelers’ secondary vs. Packers’ passing game

The Packers love to throw deep. They have one of the league’s best receiving duos in Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. Jennings is one of the elite receivers in the NFL, and Driver can still do this:

Despite having the Defensive Player of the Year in Troy Polamalu, the Steelers’ secondary is otherwise pretty weak for being a playoff team. In the AFC Championship, the Steelers almost blew a 24 point lead because they couldn’t stop the pass. The only chance they have to contain Jennings is to have Polamalu help one of the corners double-cover him all game. But even that plan is flawed. In Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers got absolutely lit up by Larry Fitzgerald (7 catches, 127 yards, 2 TDs) while double-covering him. That year, the Steelers’ starters in the secondary were CB Ike Taylor, CB Bryant McFadden, SS Polamalu, and FS Ryan Clark. Nothing has changed, except everyone’s a little older.

In his career, Aaron Rodgers has the highest QB rating, and lowest interception rate OF ALL TIME. That’s not to say the Steelers can’t pick him off, because Polamalu is always good for a big play. At the same time, I’m not going to hold my breath.

Advantage: PACKERS

Packers’ secondary vs. Steelers’ passing game

There might not be a better cornerback duo than Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson. They are equally great in zone and man-to-man coverage. In this postseason, Williams has three interceptions, and the team has only allowed one passing touchdown per game. These teams didn’t play this season, so the easiest way to look at how the Steelers might matchup is by analyzing how they played against other teams with good secondaries. They played the Jets and Bengals – two teams who have two elite cornerbacks – twice this season. Here’s how they matched up:

Week 9 @ CIN:– Hines Ward: 3 catches, 10 yards – Mike Wallace: 5 catches, 110 yards, TD
Week 13 vs. CIN – Hines Ward: 8 catches, 115 yards – Mike Wallace: 5 catches, 78 yards
Week 14 vs. NYJ – Hines Ward: 2 catches, 34 yards – Mike Wallace: 7 catches, 102 yards
AFC Champ. vs. NYJ – Hines Ward: 2 catches, 14 yards – Mike Wallace: 1 catch, 6 yards

If one of the Steelers’ top receivers is having a bad game, the other one usually finishes with at least 100 yards. However, if Williams and Woodson are able to contain them like the Jets did in the AFC Championship game, the Steelers will have to hope for a big day from their running game.

Advantage: PACKERS

Rashard Mendenhall vs. the Packers’ D

If it weren’t for Mendenhall’s big game in the AFC Championship, we wouldn’t even be talking about the Steelers this week. The Jets had an answer for everything else, but they couldn’t stop him.

This season, the Packers allowed 4.7 yards per carry, tied for second worst in the NFL. Granted, they only allowed 6 rushing touchdowns (tied for second best) but in a game probably decided by field position, they need to be able to stop the run.

Rashard Mendenhall needs to have a big game for the Steelers to have success on offense.

Advantage: STEELERS

James Starks vs. Steelers’ D

The Packers were a Super Bowl favourite early in the season because they had it all – a dominant passing game, a great defence, and a star running back. When Ryan Grant suffered a season-ending ankle injury in week one, they had a decision to make: trade for a running back, or go with what they had (Brandon Jackson and James Starks). On Monday, the Packers may look back and regret not making a trade.

Jackson was decent during the season, but Starks now has the job because he is better at running through the tackles.  He’s had a decent postseason (including a 123 yard performance against the Eagles in the Wild-Card round), but he hasn’t faced anything like what he’s going to see on Sunday.

Starks played poorly against Atlanta (66 yards, 2.6 ypc), a defence that allowed 105.9 rushing Yds/G this season. The Steelers had the league’s best rush defence during the regular season, allowing only 62.8 Yds/G (Chicago was second, with 90.1). Somehow, they’ve improved in the playoffs – only allowing 52.5 Yds/G.

It’s not like Starks couldn’t play well in the big game, it’s just that he’s done nothing so far to suggest that he will.

Advantage: STEELERS

Pittsburgh o-line vs. Green Bay pass-rush

People always talk about how tough the Steelers offensive line is, or how they are constantly overcoming adversity. Here’s the truth: they suck. Especially when it comes to protecting the quarterback.

According to Cold Hard Football Facts, the Steelers finished the season with a 9.96 Negative Pass Plays percentage. That means that almost 10 per cent of all offensive plays ended up in either a sack or interception. If Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t so good at completing passes after initial contact, that number would be much, much higher.

Big Ben was sacked 2.97 times per game during the regular season. In two playoff games, they’ve allowed eight sacks. Regardless if Pro-Bowl Center Maurkice Pouncey can play through his ankle injury, the Steelers are in trouble. The Packers’ defence finished second in the NFL with 47 sacks. Green Bay’s OLB Clay Matthews is probably salivating at the thought of going against this line.

Advantage: PACKERS

Green Bay o-line vs. Pittsburgh pass-rush

Green Bay has its own problems on the offensive line. Just one year removed from allowing a league-worst 51 sacks, they haven’t improved that much.

Now they’re facing the leaders in sacks (48). What’s even more daunting than the Steelers’ statistics are the pass-rushers themselves. They run the 3-4 defence perfectly. The defensive line allows the linebackers to get into the backfield and get at the quarterback. James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior make up the best group of linebackers in the NFL. They’re fast and weight at least 230 lbs or more. They don’t just tackle their opponents – they brutalize them. (If you need convincing, search any of those names on Youtube)

Aaron Rodgers has had two concussions this season. He definitely isn’t looking forward to this matchup. If someone’s going to get knocked out of this game, it’s going to be him.

Advantage: STEELERS

Final thoughts and prediction

The bread-and-butter of the Green Bay Packers is the passing game. They have an elite quarterback in Aaron Rodgers, and good receivers. The problem is that they’re going to have trouble running the ball, because their O-line is weak, and James Starks hasn’t shown that he can run well against good teams. The Steelers will put extra emphasis on hurrying the quarterback and sending extra men in pass coverage.

On the flip side, I don’t expect the Steelers to have a great day passing the ball because of the Packers’ two shutdown corners. However Ben Roethlisberger has an uncanny ability to get first downs when the Steelers need him to. I expect that, in addition to handing the ball off to Rashard Mendenhall, will allow the Steelers to control the game of field position, and ultimately win the game.

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