You can analyze and evaluate and postulate ’til the cows come home (assuming they are out doing things), but in the end, football is about blocking and tackling. Yes, quarterbacks must be accurate, receivers must execute routes and hang on to the ball, defenders must swarm to the football, and penalties must be avoided. None of this happens without blocking and tackling. Fundamentals, people.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are in danger of losing their starting center, rookie Maurkice Pouncey, for the big game on Sunday. Are the media – with nothing much more to do than cover make-up sessions between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger, or ask Clay Matthews about his shampoo – making too big a deal out of this lone injury? This isn’t Willis Reed and the ’70 Knicks. One player, excepting the quarterback, will not make or break an NFL team. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh’s offensive line is a patchwork one; it lost tackle Willie Colon before the season started and bears little resemblance to the unit that won Super Bowl XLIII. In two playoff games this year, Roethlisberger has been sacked eight times. His counterpart, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, kissed the dirt only five times in three playoff games. It’s worth noting that the Steelers played both games at home while the Packers played all three on the road.
Green Bay’s offensive line is not overpowering, but it does protect the quarterback and has been getting the job done (along with running back James Starks) in the run game lately. Of course, Rodgers has proven dangerous when he IS being chased around, something he and Big Ben have in common.
Green Bay’s deficiency, besides its unpredictable special teams, is run defense. The Packers were gashed for 4.64 yards per attempt in 2010, fourth-worst in the league. Curiously, though, this hasn’t resulted in anything worse than a fine stat sheet for opposing running backs. The Packers did not lose a single game by more than four points. According to ColdHardFootballFacts.com, opponents needed to gain a league-high 20.61 yards for every point they scored on Green Bay. (Pittsburgh ranked number two in this category.) And the Packers not only forced opposing quarterbacks into the worst collective rating in the league (67.23), but they also led the league in causing negative pass plays (sacks or – the ultimate game-killer – interceptions). Passer rating may not always be a reliable statistic, but interceptions markedly reduce a team’s chance to win in the NFL.
This is why the Pouncey absence will be key. Should he miss Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers will have to give Doug Legursky his first start, charging him with keeping insurgent nose tackle B.J. Raji in check. Legursky had, by most accounts, a poor showing against the Jets two weeks ago when he filled in for Pouncey for most of the game. He’s had two weeks to prepare for the Packers and Raji – and Clay Matthews, and Cullen Jenkins, and whoever else they send flying at the quarterback. Will he be ready? Will the ghosts of Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, and Dermonti Dawson imbue Legursky (great football name, by the way) with the iron will of Steelers past?
Roethlisberger is not easy to take down. He sheds tacklers and finds receivers and drives defensive coordinators mad. Unlike Rodgers, he won’t scramble much. He doesn’t thrown interceptions often, either (five all season), though he did get picked off twice by the Jets during their near-comeback in the AFC title game.
And what about the Steelers’ defense? It too disrupts passers, forces errors (sacks and INTs), and inefficiency. And it stops the run cold. Rodgers will need to be accurate, even by his standards, to keep the chains moving.
The Packers have proven all season that they don’t need a world-beating run game to win. They just need to avoid turnovers and for Rodgers to be accurate and pass for big gains. In Pittsburgh’s four losses in 2010, opposing quarterbacks passed for six touchdowns and only two interceptions. Pressure on the quarterback, sacks, and interceptions (or the prevention thereof) happen at the line of scrimmage. Green Bay, as I said, forces opponents into more negative pass plays than any team; without their starting center, this puts Pittsburgh at marginal disadvantage, unless Legursky truly rises to the occasion.
It seems logical to go with Pittsburgh – the Steelers have Super Bowl experience, one of the top three or four players in the league (safety Troy Polamalu), excellent coaching, and they tackle and block with speed and brutality. But I keep coming back to that offensive line – the ugly face under all that makeup. Yes, they won 12 regular season games. Seven of those wins came against the following teams: Buffalo, Cleveland (twice), Cincinnati (twice), Carolina, and Tennessee. Against playoff teams the Steelers went 3-3. Yes, Green Bay feasted on some bad teams too (Minnesota twice, Detroit, Buffalo, Dallas, San Francisco) and also went 3-3 vs. playoff teams. So let me just mention one more thing. Green Bay lost six games, but not one by more than four points. Two were by a field goal in sudden death. Two were on last second field goals in regulation. The final two were played without Aaron Rodgers for either all or most of the game. Losses by four points or fewer – some other teams in that list include the ’72 Dolphins, ’84 and ’89 49ers, and ’91 Redskins (all Super Bowl winners). Admittedly also the ’98 Vikings, ’06 Chargers, and ’07 Patriots (all juggernauts, but also-rans). So, whither the ’10 Packers?
The pick: Packers by 6.