Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
03 Feb 2011
by Ben Muth
Longtime readers of Word of Muth know that this column has been about what has happened, not what will happen. It's a lot easier to be right when you write about the past than it is when you try to predict the future.
For instance, after the divisional round it was pretty easy to say Ramon Foster played poorly and be correct (which this column did; I am a professional). However, it would have been really impressive, and almost impossible, to predict that Ramon Foster would play really well in the conference championship game in that same week (I did not do this; it's still my first year after all). Since I like being right, or at least having a chance of being right, I have kept this column focused on the past -- until now.
Since all football fans, writers, players, bloggers, analysts, and trained animals with possible psychic abilities must have a Super Bowl prediction, I have decided to make mine. (Also, if I didn't write a prediction column this week I would have been forced to write a Pro Bowl column, which would mean actually watching and then re-watching the Pro Bowl). I'm going to focus on the offensive lines and front sevens for both teams because that's what I know best; therefore that's what I'd be most confident basing my prediction on. But even I am willing to admit that there is more to football than the trenches, and those other phases will be discussed as well, though in less detail.
Most people seem to agree the game will be close, but more people seem to be picking the Packers. The most common reason is the advantage their defensive front seven has over the Steelers offensive line. I can certainly see this line of thinking -- no one has devoted more words to criticizing Pittsburgh's offensive line than I -- but I think that advantage is being exaggerated, especially in the running game.
The Packers have a big and physical defensive line (all three starters are over three bills). They like to get into offensive linemen, knock them back, and shed them to make plays in the backfield. If there is one thing that Pittsburgh's offensive line has, it is size (if there are two things, they have size and poor health). It will be tough to knock back guys as big as Flozell Adams, Ramon Foster, and Chris Kemoeatu. The best matchup the Packers have up front is Cullen Jenkins against Jonathan Scott, which is a decent-sized mismatch. However, the Steelers prefer to run to the right, which should diminish the effectiveness of Green Bay's best defensive lineman.
The Steelers offensive linemen is at their best when they can get into defensive linemen and swallow them up, simply holding them long enough for Rashard Mendenhall to find a crease. The offensive line struggles much more with quickness and movement than it does with size and strength. The Packers defensive line's style plays right into Pittsburgh's hands.
I'm not saying that Pittsburgh will dominate the line of scrimmage; the Packers front seven is still the better unit. What I'm saying is that if Pittsburgh had to choose a top five defensive front to play against, they may choose the Packers because of the style. The great equalizer for Green Bay should be their outside linebackers, particularly Clay Matthews.
In the running game, the Steelers offensive linemen will rarely be blocking these types of athletes. That responsibility will fall to their tight ends, mainly Heath Miller. I'm a big fan of Miller as a blocker. He was probably the best blocking tight end I saw this year, and I actually think he is capable of handling either Matthews or Erik Walden in the running game by himself.
The Steelers also use trips bunch formations in the ground game, which should help handle these edge players. The outside linebackers will be forced to align wider against these types of formations. If Miller can hold his own against the outside linebackers in standard formations and personnel (which I think he can) and the Steelers can handle the inside linebackers with just their offensive line in three wide receiver sets, I think the Steelers have a good chance of running the ball like they did against the Jets.
Of course, most people's concern with the Pittsburgh offensive line stems from their inability to protect Ben Roethlisberger. However, I think that the Packers front three will struggle to get pressure on Roethlisberger. With the exception of Jenkins, none of the Packers defensive linemen are particularly quick. Most of them are bull rushers with club counters, meaning they like to fire into an offensive lineman and get him off balance before using their forearm to club the defender to one side or the other.
As I mentioned earlier, the Steelers struggle up front when they can't get their hands on people and are forced to deal with space. The Green Bay defensive line tries to eliminate space to create push, which is what the slower, heavier Steelers offensive line would prefer. Maurkice Pouncey is the one Steelers player who has the most trouble with pure strength, and he will likely be out. His replacement, Doug Legursky, might actually be better equipped to handle this kind of pass rush, especially considering that Pouncey will be limited if he does play. Legursky's short and stocky build should be ideal for handling bull rushes and clubs -- his low center of gravity should keep him fairly stable.
All that being said, there is still the issue of Clay Matthews in the passing game. Matthews has a high motor and a lot of herky-jerky, jab-step oriented moves that will be a nightmare for Pittsburgh's offensive tackles. If there is one thing the Pittsburgh tackles struggle with, particularly Adams, it is change of direction. I don't think the Steelers have an answer for the former Trojan.
Since they don't have an answer, they are going to have to try several. I think the key will be to mix up the looks he gets. Basically this means keeping in Heath Mille to help block, chipping with a running back, and sliding the protection toward him as often as possible. One thing Bruce Arenas has shown is a willingness to change protections and keep skill players in to help protect his quarterback.
While everyone seems to be talking about the mismatch for the Pittsburgh offensive line, the Green Bay offensive line has flown under the radar. The Packers offensive line was bad last year, and while it improved this year, is still not dominant. They have to find a way to deal with a very good defensive front.
The Steelers have the best defense in the NFL, and it is largely due to their front seven. Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, and Casey Hampton are all very physical players that are exceptional against the run. The Packers offensive line has struggled to open up running lanes all year. I firmly believe that the Steelers will be able to contain the run with little help from the secondary. This means the Packers are going to have to throw the ball against complete defensive secondaries. Luckily that is an area in which they excel.
The problem with being forced to throw the ball a lot is handling the pass rush. Once defenders can feel a team abandoning the running game, they begin unleashing their best pass rush moves. James Harrison may be the best pass rusher in the NFL (his jab step in/quick swim out is up there with the Dwight Freeney swim in pass-rush moves), and he is always going to be a factor, but I think the real problem for the Packers will be LaMarr Woodley.
Woodley will probably be matched up against rookie Bryan Bulaga for the majority of the game. Bulaga is a solid player, particularly for a rookie, but he has a tendency to lead with his head in pass protection. Woodley's best move seems to be a pull/rip, in which he grabs the back of a lineman's shoulder pad, pulls it towards him, then rips through with his inside arm. If Bulaga leads with his head, it makes it much easier to grab that shoulder because it will be much closer. I guarantee you that Bulaga has seen the same thing and will come into the game with a plan. But as the game goes along, it will become easier for Bulaga to fall into his old habits. The Packers could try to deal with Woodley the way the Steelers will try to deal with Matthews, but then you probably aren't focusing enough attention on the Steelers' best rusher, Harrison.
One advantage both offenses have over the defenses is familiarity. Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau run very similar defenses, meaning both of these offenses have seen this style of 3-4 zone pressure defense more than any other kind of scheme. Both quarterbacks and offensive lines should recognize most of the blitzes they see, which takes away a big advantage both defenses usually have (the 3-4's pass rush usually comes from half outside linebacker ability, and half offensive confusion) .
The Steelers and Packers have very different offenses, so they have a better chance of outright fooling the defenses. I think that's part of the reason last year's game was such shoot out. (I think it was 128-117, but you may want to Google that.) Both defenses are better this year than last, but schematic familiarity is certainly one advantage these seemingly over matched offensive lines have.
After a lot of thought, I am of the opinion that the Steelers offensive line actually matches up better for this game than the Green Bay offensive line. Green Bay's unit is better, but it has to block the best front seven in football. Pittsburgh's offensive line is pretty bad, but the Packers have a really good defensive front that happens to play to Pittsburgh's strengths. If you are going to go against superior talent, it's best to go against superior talent that you can bring down to your level. In the trenches, I would give the slightest of edges to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
When it comes to skill positions it's pretty even. I think Mendenhall is clearly the best running back in the game. He is a good pass blocker, which he will have to be this week, and a better with the ball in his hands than any Packers runners. I like Green Bay's wide receivers more: Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson are all threats to make a big play and all have had games where they have broken out. Still, I think Mike Wallace is the best receiver in the game and has the chance to make the biggest impact.
The secondaries are a lot like the receiving corps, in the sense that I think the Packers have the better unit, but Pittsburgh has the best player (his name rhymes Smolamalu). I would like to be able to go to individual matchups like I did up front, but I'm not comfortable enough with my knowledge of these players and schemes to do that. So instead I'm calling it a wash and going to the quarterbacks.
One thing I'm certain of after doing all my research is that this will be a close game. There's a good chance that this game is going to come down to two of the five best quarterbacks in the NFL, that's how even the teams are. And that's why I'm picking the Steelers.
I'm not going to break down the individual merits of the two quarterbacks -- many other people have done it better than I can -- but I think they're both great. All I know is that, in a close game, I'm not sure I would take anyone over Ben Roethlisberger, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't take Aaron Rodgers. Maybe it's because I saw what Roethlisberger did to my favorite team, the Cardinals, two years ago and that memory is burned into my brain. Maybe it's because Rodgers went to Cal, and he seemed to lose a lot of close games there and in Green Bay. But it probably has to do with the fact that I know Roethlisberger can do it in the Super Bowl, and I'm only pretty sure that Rodgers can do it. In a game where the teams are this even, pretty sure doesn't seem to cut it.
Steelers 23, Packers 20
62 comments, Last at 06 Feb 2011, 3:38pm by thebuch