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Super Bowl XLV Preview - Pittsburgh (14-4) vs. Green Bay (13-6)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While the setting for Super Bowl XLV will be undeniably 21st-century, there'll also likely be plenty of images of days gone past when the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers battle for the NFL's ultimate prize at the palatial Cowboys Stadium.
Two of the NFL's most storied franchises have converged upon suburban Dallas for this year's title game, with both seeking to further build on its well- established legacy. No team has hoisted the Lombardi Trophy (which of course, is named after the legendary Packers head coach) as many times as the Steelers, while Green Bay's total of 12 league championships is more than any other team.
Pittsburgh has won the Super Bowl six times previously and will be making its eighth appearance in the Big Game, tied with the Cowboys for the most all-time. If the Steelers are able to prevail over the surging Packers, they'll also surpass Dallas and take over sole possession of the NFL record for postseason victories (34).
The game also carries historical significance for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who's been a part of the team's last two Super Bowl triumphs. If he's able to lead Pittsburgh to another this Sunday, the seventh-year pro would join a very exclusive group of field generals with at least three rings as a starter, a list that presently consists of Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw (four wins), Joe Montana (four) and Troy Aikman (three) as well as current New England Patriots superstar Tom Brady (three).
The Steelers will also be vying for a third world championship in the past six seasons, having bested Seattle in Super Bowl XL to culminate the 2005 campaign and rallying past Arizona two years ago in Tampa.
Green Bay's success goes farther back, with the team's most recent Super Bowl trips coming in back-to-back fashion during the 1996 and 1997 seasons. The Packers, who captured the first two editions of what was then termed the AFL- NFL World Championship Game under Lombardi's direction, knocked off the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI for their third such crown and lost to Denver the following year.
The Packers put an end to that lengthy drought with an improbable and impressive run through this year's NFC Playoffs, winning three consecutive road tilts to become that conference's first-ever No. 6 seed to advance. The only other team to reach the Super Bowl from the lowest rung on the postseason ladder was the 2005 Steelers.
This year's showdown will also highlight strong defense, pitting the top two stop units in the NFL in terms of points allowed during the regular season. Pittsburgh yielded a league-low 14.5 points per game, while the Packers surrendered just 15.0 per outing.
The two combatants also sport the top two finishers for the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, with Steelers safety Troy Polamalu edging Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews by only two votes to attain the honor.
Neither the Steelers nor the Packers displayed much prowess on that side of the ball the last time these teams crossed paths, however. In a matchup at Heinz Field during Week 15 of the 2009 season, Pittsburgh came through in a 37-36 thriller that featured a whopping 973 total yards of offense.
Roethlisberger threw for a club-record 503 yards and three touchdowns that day, with Green Bay counterpart Aaron Rodgers putting up 383 yards and three scores of his own in a losing cause. The 886 combined passing yards between the quarterbacks stands as the most in league history in a game that did have an interception.
Green Bay has an 18-14 lead in its all-time series with Pittsburgh, but the Steelers have come out on top in each of the past three meetings. In addition to last year's memorable one-point win, Pittsburgh bested the Packers at home in 1998 and on the road in 2005. Green Bay's last positive verdict over the Black and Gold took place at Lambeau Field in 1995.
The 2009 clash stands as the only head-to-head appearance for both Roethlisberger and Rodgers, and the lone time either quarterback has ever faced their Super Bowl XLV foe. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Green Bay sideline boss Mike McCarthy also had not opposed one another, or their counterpart's respective team, until that matchup.
Tomlin owns a 5-1 lifetime postseason record and guided Pittsburgh to its 27-23 win over Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII two years ago. With a victory, the 38- year-old would become the first head coach to win two Super Bowls in his first four seasons, as well as the youngest to seize multiple Lombardi Trophies.
McCarthy, a Pittsburgh native, is 4-2 in the postseason over his coaching career and will be participating in his first Super Bowl on any level.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Steelers Quarterback: As just about everyone knows, Roethlisberger (3200 passing yards, 17 TD, 5 INT in the regular season) has had to conquer some well-publicized off-field issues during what's been a season of immense personal growth for the two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback. That increased maturity has found its way onto the field as well, with the seventh- year pro recording a career-low 1.3 percent interception rate over 12 regular- season starts that followed a four-game league-imposed suspension. Most importantly, he's a proven winner with an unbelievable knack for coming through in the clutch, as evidenced by his memorable final-minute touchdown drive to beat Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII and a 10-2 lifetime postseason mark that trails only Packers legend Bart Starr (9-1) for the best winning percentage by a signal-caller in NFL playoff history.
Steelers Running Backs: The Steelers made leading rusher Rashad Mendenhall (1273 rushing yards, 13 TD, 23 receptions) the focal point of the AFC Championship, and the 2008 first-round draft choice responded with a dominant 27-carry, 121-yard, one-touchdown effort that helped fuel his team's 24-19 win over the New York Jets. Expect that approach to remain unchanged come Super Bowl Sunday, as Pittsburgh is 6-1 when the workhorse back eclipses the century mark for his career. Physical understudy Isaac Redman (247 rushing yards, 9 receptions, 2 total TD) will give Mendenhall the occasional breather, with versatile vet Mewelde Moore (99 rushing yards, 26 receptions) utilized almost exclusively on obvious passing downs.
Steelers Wide Receivers: A deep cast of Pittsburgh pass-catchers offers both savvy experience and youthful athleticism. The most accomplished member, 13th- year mainstay Hines Ward (59 receptions, 5 TD), boasts over 950 career receptions and six seasons of over 1,000 yards, not to mention a Super Bowl MVP award for his 123-yard, one-touchdown output against Seattle in 2006. The 34-year-old is no longer the Steelers' No. 1 receiver, however, having relinquished that distinction to fleet-footed sophomore Mike Wallace (60 receptions, 1257 yards, 10 TD), an elite big-play threat who averaged a robust 21 yards per catch and scored nine touchdowns of 29 yards or more prior to the playoffs. Rookies Emmanuel Sanders (28 receptions, 2 TD) and Antonio Brown (16 receptions) have each seen their roles in the offense increase down the stretch and will be used in Pittsburgh's various multiple-receiver looks.
Steelers Tight Ends: Heath Miller (42 receptions, 2 TD) is one of the top all-around players at his position and provides a steady outlet for Roethlisberger, and is also someone the Packers will need to pay close attention to. He burned Green Bay for a career-best 118 yards on seven catches in the 2009 meeting, the same game in which Roethlisberger threw for a franchise-record 503 yards and Ward came down with seven grabs totaling 126 yards. Weighing 270 pounds on a 6-foot-7 frame, backup Matt Spaeth's (9 receptions, 1 TD) primary duties are to serve as essentially an extra tackle in the team's two tight-end sets.
Steelers Offensive Line: While this mix-and-match five-man operation, which will probably consist of Doug Legursky at center, Chris Kemoeatu and Ramon Foster at the guards and Jonathan Scott and Flozell Adams on the outside, has done a commendable job while dealing with a season-long rash of injuries, it still rates as Pittsburgh's most questionable area heading into the Big Game. It's a better run-blocking unit than in protection, as the line gave up 43 sacks over the regular-season slate and eight more in the Steelers' two playoff wins. Legursky is expected to start for rookie standout Maurkice Pouncey, who sustained a high ankle sprain against the Jets in the conference title game and is considered a long shot to suit up.
Packers Defensive Line: A potent Green Bay pass rush has gotten a strong assist from the up-front combo of nose tackle B.J. Raji (39 tackles, 6.5 sacks) and end Cullen Jenkins (18 tackles, 7 sacks), two quality penetrators that combined for an impressive 13 1/2 sacks during the regular season. Ryan Pickett (32 tackles, 1 sack), a 10-year vet and one of only two Packers (along with cornerback Charles Woodson) to play in a Super Bowl, is utilized primarily as a run-stopper on the other side of the line, with beefy journeyman Howard Green (8 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) also figuring into the rotation.
Packers Inside Linebackers: Desmond Bishop (103 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) ranks near the top of the Packers' extensive list of unsung heroes, with the lifelong backup more than ably filling injured regular Nick Barnett's shoes alongside former top-five overall pick A.J. Hawk (111 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 3 INT), who's in turn put forth arguably his best season as both an impact player and respected leader. Both have been exceptionally sound in coverage, one reason why Green Bay finished atop the NFL in pass efficiency defense.
Packers Outside Linebackers: Only DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen have racked up more sacks since Matthews (60 tackles, 13.5 sacks, 1 INT) burst onto the scene prior to the 2009 campaign, and the All-Pro honoree's boundless energy has been as vital to the defense's performance as his superior pass-rushing skills. Coordinator Dom Capers has made the most of limited resources on the opposite side, with both street free-agent Erik Walden (25 tackles, 4 sacks) and undrafted rookie Frank Zombo (38 tackles, 4 sacks) each making contributions. Look for the two to share snaps in the Super Bowl, with Zombo appearing to be ready to return from a six-game absence caused by a knee sprain and Walden battling a sprained ankle he sustained in the NFC Championship.
Packers Cornerbacks: There may not be a better trio of cornerbacks in the league right now than the terrific tandem Green Bay will trot out on Super Bowl Sunday. Woodson (92 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and one of the most versatile members of his creed, with the former Heisman Trophy recipient able to play the run like a safety and blitz like a linebacker in addition to supplying lockdown coverage. Tramon Williams (57 tackles, 6 INT, 20 PD) may not have the accolades of his seven-time Pro Bowl teammate, but the fourth-year pro is beginning to make his own mark with a banner 2010 season and an equally-as-stellar playoffs in which he's come up with three interceptions and returned one for a touchdown. Rookie nickel back Sam Shields (29 tackles, 2 INT) had two interceptions and a sack in the Pack's 21-14 decision over Chicago in the NFC Championship, and his sudden development has enabled Capers to deploy Woodson from just about anywhere on the field to take advantage of the veteran's various talents.
Packers Safeties: Though he's yet to attain the rock-star status of Polamalu, free safety Nick Collins (70 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) may be just as essential to the Packers as his Super Bowl counterpart is to the Steelers. The steady center fielder has snared 17 interceptions over the past three seasons and made the Pro Bowl in each of those years, and hasn't missed a game over that time frame as well. With 2009 starter Bigby plagued by ankle, hamstring and groin injuries throughout the year, lifetime special-teamer Charlie Peprah (63 tackles, 2 INT) has held down the fort on the strong side and hasn't been a liability, displaying both good instincts and athleticism in his first extended opportunity as a starter.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Packers Quarterback: Rodgers (3922 passing yards, 28 TD, 11 INT) had already cemented himself among this era's elite regular-season quarterbacks by averaging over 4,100 passing yards and nearly 29 touchdowns in his three years as Brett Favre's successor, but the 27-year-old has proven himself to be a big- time performer in the postseason as well. In four career playoff tilts, the former first-round pick has thrown for 10 scores and amassed a stellar 113.0 passer rating, the highest in NFL history among signal-callers with at least 100 attempts. Rodgers also easily navigated Pittsburgh's accomplished defense in the previously-mentioned 2009 meeting at Heinz Field, throwing for 383 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers in a 37-36 Green Bay loss.
Packers Running Backs: The 6-foot-2, 218-pound James Starks (101 rushing yards) offers a tantalizing combination of power and speed to the Packers' backfield and fresh legs as well, having been given only 29 regular-season carries prior to his vastly-increased role in the playoffs. The rookie's emergence has rendered leading rusher Brandon Jackson (703 rushing yards, 43 receptions, 4 total TD) into a supporting capacity, with the fourth-year pro's primary duty to serve as a receiving outlet for Rodgers in third-down situations. Also in the mix is John Kuhn (281 rushing yards, 6 total TD), a versatile 250-pounder and one-time Steeler who also possesses solid pass-catching skills and is often utilized in short yardage, as well as a co-lead blocker along with squatty fullback Quinn Johnson in McCarthy's creative three-back sets.
Packers Wide Receivers: The Packers boast possibly the deepest collection of wideouts in the league, with the excellent foursome of Greg Jennings (76 receptions, 1265 yards, 12 TD), Donald Driver (51 receptions, 4 TD), Jordy Nelson (45 receptions, 2 TD) and James Jones (50 receptions, 5 TD) all surpassing 500 receiving yards during the regular season. Jennings ranks as the dangerous deep threat of the bunch and scorched the Steelers for 118 yards and a touchdown in last year's bout between the teams, while the 35-year-old Driver is a savvy veteran who gives Rodgers a tremendously reliable option out of the slot. Jones is the most inconsistent of the group, having struggled with drops at times, but his 15.7 yards per reception average and two touchdowns during the playoffs shows he still must be accounted for.
Packers Tight Ends: The tight end hasn't been a big part of the Green Bay passing game since field-stretcher Jermichael Finley was forced to injured reserve after undergoing knee surgery in mid-October. Rookie Andrew Quarless (21 receptions, 1 TD) has been serviceable as a starter, though, and practice- squad promotee Tom Crabtree contributes as both a blocker and core special teamer.
Packers Offensive Line: Green Bay will attempt to combat a ferocious Pittsburgh pass rush with a sturdy and seasoned front wall that deems pass protection as its strength. The five-man contingent is headlined by steady left tackle Chad Clifton, who's started 164 times (including playoffs) since being taken by the Green and Gold in the second round of the 2000 draft and earned a second career Pro Bowl nod this year. Many insiders believed Josh Sitton deserved the same distinction after putting together a banner season at right guard, and he anchors a sound interior cast that also contains trusted mainstays Scott Wells (center) and Daryn Colledge (left guard), both of whom have locked into their present positions since 2006. The newbie of the corps is rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga, a first-round selection who's gradually began to justify his lofty draft status after replacing injured vet Mark Tauscher after the season's fourth game. The Packers did a very good job of keeping Rodgers upright in last season's skirmish with the Steelers, allowing only one sack in 49 pass attempts.
Steelers Defensive Line: Pittsburgh's No. 1 overall ranking in run defense (62.8 ypg) was in large part due to the work of the large men along the team's three-man front. Veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton (20 tackles, 1 sack) is an immovable force in the middle with five Pro Bowl citations to his credit, while fellow longtime starter Brett Keisel (33 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) was named an alternate to this year's all-star game for his steady play on the right side. 2009 first-round draft choice Ziggy Hood (20 tackles, 3 sacks) has filled in ably for mainstay Aaron Smith (15 tackles), out since late October with a torn triceps, at the other spot. The Steelers have kept Smith on the active roster in the hopes he'd be able to make it back for the Super Bowl, though that seems like an iffy proposition at this point.
Steelers Inside Linebackers: Though neither were chosen to the Pro Bowl, it's hard to find a more formidable duo of inside linebackers than the Steelers' outstanding combo of 14th-year pro James Farrior (109 tackles, 6 sacks) and emerging star Lawrence Timmons (135 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT). While best known for excelling at filling gaps and stuffing the run, the pair are also adept at pressuring the quarterback, with Farrior posting the second-highest sack total of his long career at age 35.
Steelers Outside Linebackers: The Steelers are equally as strong on the edges of their linebacking corps, boasting two tremendous pass rushers in 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison (100 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 INT) and LaMarr Woodley (50 tackles, 10 sacks, 2 INT), a top-notch tandem and the main reason Pittsburgh led the NFL with 48 sacks in the regular season. Both have a knack of coming through on the big stage as well. Harrison, named to his fourth straight All-Pro team, delivered one of the signature moments of Super Bowl XLIII when he intercepted a Kurt Warner pass at the end of the first half and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown -- the longest play in the game's history. Woodley has registered at least one sack in all six postseason tilts he's appeared in, having racked up 10 over that stretch.
Steelers Cornerbacks: This is the one area that will have its depth tested by the Packers, who extensively employ multiple-receiver looks and figure to test Pittsburgh frequently through the air on Super Bowl Sunday. Physical vet Ike Taylor (66 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) can be a shutdown cover man and is likely the secondary member Rodgers will look away from, as opposite-side starter Bryant McFadden (81 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and slot specialist William Gay (48 tackles, 2 sacks) are best suited as nickel backs and dime defender Anthony Madison (24 tackles, 1 sacks, 1 INT) makes his living on special teams. This is a group that can makes plays, however, with the quartet combining for six sacks and five of the Steelers' regular-season sum of 21 interceptions.
Steelers Safeties: Polamalu's (63 tackles, 1 sack, 7 INT) remarkable abilities as both a tackler and in coverage make Pittsburgh's last line of defense an obvious strength, but backfield mate Ryan Clark (90 tackles, 2 INT) can hold his own as a playmaker as well. The sometimes overlooked free safety was hard to ignore in the Steelers' come-from-behind win over Baltimore in the AFC Divisional Playoffs, producing an interception and a forced fumble that helped spark the second-half rally. The two's mixture of intelligence and experience were clear factors towards Pittsburgh placing second in pass efficiency defense this season.
Steelers Placekicker: Shaun Suisham was terrific during the regular season after joining the Steelers, connecting on all but one of his 15 field goal tries, but the journeyman kicker is just 5-of-8 on three-pointers over four lifetime postseason games and owns a lackluster 76.5 success rate (13-of-17) indoors. He'll be familiar with the surroundings of Cowboys Stadium, however, having appeared in a pair of contests there during his brief stop in Dallas last season.
Steelers Punter: Though Jeremy Kapinos (41.9 avg.) has been an adequate fill-in for incumbent Daniel Sepulveda, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear in early December, the ex-Packer still doesn't possess the leg strength or hang time of his predecessor, who also missed the Steelers' win in Super Bowl XLIII due to a torn ACL. Prior to getting hurt, the snake-bitten Sepulveda ranked fourth in the AFC with a 45.5 overall average and was tied for sixth in the league in net punting (39.1 avg.).
Steelers Long-snapper: Greg Warren provides Pittsburgh with an experienced and reliable option at this position, having served as the team's primary long snapper since 2005. Durability has been his only issue, as he ended both the 2008 and '09 seasons on injured reserve with knee problems.
Steelers Punt Returners: Either Brown or sure-handed veteran Antwaan Randle El (4.0 avg.) will be fielding punts for the Steelers, depending on the situation. Brown offers a bit more explosion than his steady counterpart, who's usually deployed when the team is deep in its own end, but his 5.8 yards per return hasn't been very impactful. As a team Pittsburgh has averaged a mere 6.1 yards per runback on punts, tied for the lowest mark in the NFL.
Kickoff Returners: The Steelers have gotten better results out of this area of the return game, with Sanders averaging a respectable 25.1 yards per attempt during the regular season and Brown (23.4 avg.) busting an 89-yard touchdown in a Week 2 win at Tennessee. The latter has handled kicks exclusively in the playoffs and averaged 21.9 yards per return.
Special Teams Defense: What was a major weakness for the 2009 Steelers has been shored up with the offseason hiring of well-regarded special teams coordinator Al Everest. After surrendering a league-worst four kickoff return touchdowns last season, Pittsburgh held the opposition to just 20.0 yards per runback (5th overall) this year. Several rookies also helped bolster the coverage units, with reserve linebackers Jason Worilds (15 tackles) and Stevenson Sylvester (11 tackles) and Sanders (10 tackles) joining holdovers Madison (17 tackles) and Keyaron Fox (16 tackles) among the team's top stoppers.
Packers Placekicker: Mason Crosby is regarded as possessing a strong leg, having made 10 field goals of 50 yards or more during his four-year tenure as Green Bay's kicker. He can be erratic, however, as a lifetime 78.1 percent success rate (107-of-137) on three-point tries will attest. Crosby hit on a so- so 22-of-28 field goal attempts during the regular season and had trouble on kickoffs, recording a career-low four touchbacks in 2010. The native Texan is 5-of-7 all-time on field goals during the postseason, but both misses were from beyond 50 yards.
Packers Punter: First-year punter Tim Masthay emerged as perhaps the most consistent member of the Packers' special teams group by season's end, averaging a respectable 43.9 gross yards per boot and placing 25 kicks inside the 20, the most by a Green Bay punter since Josh Bidwell (26) in 2002. The first-year pro also serves as Crosby's holder on kick placements.
Packers Long-snapper: Brett Goode has handled this often unnoticed precision with aplomb for the past three seasons, and the 26-year-old's steady play earned him a two-year contract extension in January. He didn't have a bad snap in 145 regular-season attempts and added three solo tackles on punt coverage.
Packers Punt Returners: Williams handled these duties exclusively for the first time in his career and performed decently, averaging eight yards per runback in the regular season. The playmaking cover man does have a punt return score to his credit, taking one back 94 yards against Carolina in 2007. No player in Super Bowl history has ever returned a punt for a touchdown.
Packers Kickoff Returners: Green Bay's last Super Bowl triumph was highlighted by Desmond Howard's record 99-yard kickoff return touchdown against the Patriots in 1997. A repeat result would be most surprising, considering the Packers ranked 26th overall in that category (20.1 avg.) this season and neither of the two main contributors, Nelson (22.6 avg.) and Shields (21.5 avg.), were anything special. Starks has taken over as the primary kick returner in the playoffs, but has averaged a subpar 14 yards per touch thus far.
Special Teams Defense: Here's a real area of concern for both McCarthy and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum. The Packers allowed an average of 11.0 yards per punt return (tied for 24th overall) during the regular season and surrendered a 102-yard kickoff for a touchdown by Atlanta's Eric Weems in their upset of the Falcons in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Green Bay also gave up an embarrassing 71-yard kick return to New England offensive lineman Dan Connolly in a late-season game with the Patriots. The Packers didn't have their top special-teams tackler, fullback Korey Hall (12 tackles), for the first two rounds of the playoffs due to a knee sprain, but the former college linebacker did return for the conference championship.
There's little doubt the Packers are a very dangerous opponent at the moment, and the team's prolific offensive display in a 48-21 dismantling at top-seeded Atlanta in the NFC Divisional Playoffs offered an accurate indication of its firepower in an indoor atmosphere like the one Green Bay will encounter on Super Bowl Sunday. The Packers will still have an uphill climb trying to run the ball on the stifling Steelers, however, and that one-dimensional possibility could prove to be a fateful impediment in the long run. Pittsburgh will have its hands full in certain aspects as well, as Green Bay's secondary can be quite difficult to navigate and the Packers have the ability to exploit their foe's season-long protection issues with their pass rush. It's still hard to ignore Roethlisberger's uncanny track record in spots such as this one, however, and Pittsburgh's experience advantage and understated effectiveness at running the football are also positives for a Steelers squad that's shown a remarkable knack for rising to the occasion.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Packers 24
02/03 15:20:58 ET