Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Super Bowl XLV Preview

Team History
It is impossible for me to pass up an opportunity to write something about the upcoming Super Bowl. After all, it is a contest between two storied franchises - the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of which is my favorite team. The Packers legacy was forged with legendary coach Vince Lombardi when the modern Super Bowl era began. He had the good fortune to have quarterback Bart Starr and running backs Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor as members of the first two Super Bowl winning teams. Of course, the rosters have changed through the years with the likes of James Lofton, Brett Favre, and Reggie White donning the green and gold for the small town in Wisconsin. Now, they are led by everyone's favorite QB of the present and future - Aaron Rodgers - while the defense features linebacker Clay Matthews, Jr. and defensive back Charles Woodson. The Steelers' rise to success came several years after the Packers rise to prominence. Their leader, Chuck Noll, drafted the right players to fit his team's identity with QB Terry Bradshaw, RB Franco Harris, DL Joe Greene, and LB Jack Lambert. Most of the team stayed intact during their run of four titles in six years from 1974 to 1980.

Both franchises experienced some rather dark years in the 1980s after their superstars retired from football. Sure, there were a handful of playoff berths, but neither team was ever considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Then, the decade of the 1990s brought about a return to prosperity. Green Bay was able to pry Favre away from Atlanta in 1992 for a first round pick because the Falcons were sure that Jeff George was the answer at QB - oops. Mike Holmgren's Packers brought home a Lombardi trophy to Titletown in 1997 by defeating Bill Parcells' New England Patriots. Bill Cowher invigorated the Steelers franchise with a new enthusiasm in the early 90s. The Steelers didn't break through with any Super Bowl victories until the past decade (when they got two more), but the foundation for the two franchises have been rock solid for the better part of two decades.

But, that history has little to do with the upcoming weekend's game. It is merely a talking point for the media. What effect will Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Chuck Noll, or Terry Bradshaw have on the outcome of this game? Zero. It only affords reporters the opportunity to interview each franchise's longtime veterans on this most over-hyped week of the season. The focus should be on each team's current roster, not the glad-handing of retired professionals. There are 106 players (let's not forget the coaches, too!) who are dying to win a Super Bowl ring. Let's make this week about them. They are the ones who are building a team's history before our very eyes.

Offense / Defense / Special Teams
The game itself will feature two excellent defenses. Green Bay's defense has made vast improvements over the second half of the season. While Clay Matthews' sack numbers have slightly declined since his torrid early season pace, the overall team concept of defense has solidified. B.J. Raji has become a force in the interior defensive line. A.J. Hawk is an exceptional athlete that has progressed in becoming an every-down linebacker. The strength of the secondary is Charles Woodson. His ability to play any secondary position allows defensive coordinator to provide multiple looks intended to confuse the opposing QB and offensive coordinator. Tramon Williams was worthy of a Pro Bowl selection and has nearly become a shutdown corner.

Pittsburgh has been steadier throughout the year with solid but unspectacular line play, allowing James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to be formidable pass rushers. The secondary has some holes that can be exploited. Bryant McFadden gets picked on quiite often as a result of CB Ike Taylor's superb one-on-one defending. Troy Polamalu provides unprecedented playmaking ability that can affect opponents' gameplans.

It is quite astounding that the Packers made it to the Super Bowl with the number of starters that are on injured reserve - RB Ryan Grant, TE Jermichael Finley, and LB Nick Barnett are the most prominent names. In total, 16 Packers are on IR. Pittsburgh has suffered many injuries on the offensive line, the worst of which was last week's high ankle sprain (and broken bone) to Pro Bowl C Maurkice Pouncey. Also, Pittsburgh insiders believe that there is a lingering injury affecting all-world SS Troy Polamalu's play. He and his flowing hair usually run miles each game, forward and back, sideline to sideline to mask the opposing QB's ability to read the defense. But, the Steelers have chosen to use him primarily 15-20 yards from the line of scrimmage in playoff games.

Neither special teams unit generally makes significant plays. I think both teams would be happy if they plodded through the special teams game and didn't allow a big play.

The offenses may be just dynamic enough to overcome very slight weaknesses in defenses. Aaron Rodgers can throw the ball into such tight windows. Of course, it helps that each member of the receiving corps can get open. Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Jordy Nelson, and even RB Brandon Jackson notched better than 40 receptions. This just goes to show that Green Bay can pick you apart in a number of ways. The running game, which had become an afterthought for much of the season, is gaining steam in the playoffs with James Starks filling in admirably as the go-to guy. He's going to find some tough sledding this weekend against the league's best run defense. Expect the Packers to give him the ball early to see if they can maintain a balanced attack. If not, they would be just as comfortable using 4WR and 5WR sets to spread out the Steelers, hoping to force Dick LeBeau (Steelers defensive coordinator) to use more nickel and dime packages. I'm sure that LeBeau would prefer to use a 3-4 base defense where he can mix up the playcalling with more exotic pressure packages. RB Rashard Mendenhall made Jets defenders miss all last week, but I wouldn't expect him to surpass 120 yards in the big game unless he breaks a long run. He won't be able to grind out 5+ yards as often as he did last week, especially behind the patchwork Steelers offensive line. WR Mike Wallace has big play capability, but has been awfully quiet in the postseason, as has Hines Ward. Tight end Heath Miller will be a tough draw for any Packers defender. He is the Steelers' best hope at opening up the passing game for the other receivers. Ben Roethlisberger's consistent knack for extending plays could frustrate the Cheeseheads' pass rushers if he continues to get loose to make throws downfield.

Super Bowl Minutiae
If you look at the past five Super Bowls, those quarterbacks that are making their Super Bowl debuts have had their difficulties, with the exception of Drew Brees last year.
Year      QB                                   Rating
2009      D. Brees                          114.5
2007      E. Manning                      87.3
New York Giants / New England Patriots. Yes, Eli Manning got MVP Honors, but it wasn't until the 'helmet catch' that the Giants believed they could win.
2006      P. Manning                      81.8
Indianapolis Colts / Chicago Bears. Peyton Manning may have also received MVP honors, but it was a total team effort that won the title for Dungy and company.
2006      R. Grossman                   68.3
Indianapolis Colts / Chicago Bears. Rex Grossman played poorly throughout the game for the NFC champion Bears despite being handed an early lead by Devin Hester.
2005      B. Roethlisberger            22.5
Pittsburgh Steelers / Seattle Seahawks. Ben Roethlisberger could have put the game away in the 3rd quarter, but woefully underthrew a corner route that allowed the Seahawks back into the game.
2005      M. Hasselbeck                67.8
Pittsburgh Steelers / Seattle Seahawks. Matt Hasselbeck also experienced the first Super Bowl game jitters and threw a costly interception that promptly set up a Steelers 2nd half touchdown.

The last few Super Bowls have featured a game-changing play late in the game, but I don't expect that to happen on Sunday.
2009 - New Orleans Saints / Indianapolis Colts - Porter's interception of Manning
2008 - Pittsburgh Steelers / Arizona Cardinals - Holmes' toe tap in the end zone
2007 - New York Giants / New England Patriots - David Tyree's helmet catcfh

Tale of the Tape
Subject                           Green Bay                           Pittsburgh
#6 seed                                  +
Linemen                                 +
Nickname                               +
SB Experience                                                                 +
Playoff Beards                                                                 +
Home crowd                                                                   +
Signature food                       +                                       +
Scandals                                -                                        -
Tutoring                                                                         +
Karma                                   -                                         -

#6 Seed: The only other #6 seed to enter a Super Bowl (like the Packers are doing this year) won it. It was Pittsburgh, defeating Seattle 21-10 in Super Bowl XL. The #6 seed was favored by the Vegas line in that contest, and Green Bay is a 2.5 point favorite in this one, too.
Linemen: No team has ever won a Super Bowl that started one of its five intended offensive linemen from training camp. That's the mountain the Steelers need to climb with Chris Kemoeatu being the last man standing.
Nickname: Titletown is a far better nickname than Sixburgh (or potentially Stairway to Seven).
Super Bowl Experience: Pittsburgh certainly has the experience edge of the big game with 18 players attempting to win their third ring with the team.
Playoff Beards: For the superstitious, playoff beards are in vogue (thank you hockey players for this tradition!) and Aaron Rodgers made the crucial error of dispensing with his facial hair this past week (Former Pittsburgh QB Neil O'Donnell parted with his 'Grizzly Adams' look right before Super Bowl XXX, and the Cowboys picked him off three times en route to a 27-17 victory). Big Ben has maintained his beard. Brett Keisel...well, I wouldn't call it maintenance. After seven months, his beard is just awesome.
Home Crowd: Steeler Nation will travel better than Cheesehead fans to Cowboys Stadium. Although it won't quite feel like a home game, I'd expect 65-70% of the crowd to be Pittsburgh fans.
Signature Food: Bratwurst or Primanti Bros' signature sandwich? Tough call...I can't pick.
Scandals: Picture-gate or Miiledgeville? Which will have an effect on the game? Neither. Once the ball is kicked off, both scandals will be the furthest thing from players' and coaches' minds.
Tutoring: Aaron Rodgers is turning to Trent Dilfer for advice? Yikes (Dilfer is widely regarded as the WORST quarterback to win a Super Bowl game). Meanwhile, cancer survivor and tough as nails RB Merril Hoge is in Roethlisberger's ear from time to time.
Karma: Rodgers being mum about his new helmet that may prevent concussions (check out this link to Julius Peppers' headshot on him last week - 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guG2vd-uAfY). Roethlisberger's indiscretions. They're both endangering public safety.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Aaron Rodgers will experience early game butterflies. Look at last week's contest versus the Bears. Once Rodgers got beyond the pre-scripted plays (of which there are usually fifteen), he looked uncomfortable and was playing 'not to lose' as opposed to keeping his foot on the throat of the defense like he did the previous week against the Falcons.

Being a Steeler fan, I will openly admit a bias when making predictions. So, let's put it this way. If I project a score using only my head, I'd say Green Bay wins 30-24. But, it's difficult to not factor in my heart, so I'm going to say Pittsburgh 27, Green Bay 23. I believe that the Steelers will take the lead into the 4th quarter and hang on for dear life...similar to the AFC Championship game against the Jets. I don't think it will offer quite the offensive fireworks that last season's Steelers 37-36 regular season victory did. But, I don't expect either defense to dominate play. It won't be a game for the ages. Rather, it's a matchup between two solid teams that did what it took to get here.

The prize at the end of Sunday.  Everyone wants it...a precious few get it.

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