Thursday, February 03, 2011

It's time

Well, sort of. Time is ticking though. As a cold, wintery blanket descends on Texas, the Super Bowl is a mere few days away now. Fans in suits (yeah) are arriving in droves ahead of the big game. The media is whipping itself into a frenzy. Mike Florio is filling the pages daily with bitching about ice, presumably to cover the lack of news at this time of year. So now is as good a time as any to take a look at what's in store and compare the two teams. We'll start on defense. Pittsburgh Steelers vs Green Bay Packers: Super Bowl 45 Nose Tackle: For the Steelers it's Casey Hampton. For the Packers it's more of a combination thing, with Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji both capable at the position. It's definitely one of those positions to watch if you get the opportunity. The Nose Tackle is a real key to the 3-4 defense that both teams will be using. Hampton is, frankly, a beast. The ability to consume and hold up double team blocks by the offensive line is a key to this position, allowing the linebackers to flow to the ball and make the plays. Hampton is one of the best in the league when it comes to this. He may not have the pass rushing impact that you find on some teams at the Nose Tackle spot, but Hampton is unquestionably the key to the Steelers awesome run defense. Inside, outside, Hampton is the cog that allows all the other gears to run. Pickett and Raji meanwhile are a little more versatile. Raji in particular. Compared to Hampton's sole sack this season, Raji has 6.5. He's much more of an impact player against the pass, not just through sacks but also the pressure he generates up the middle, giving guards nightmares as they figure out a way to contain his awesome bulk and speed. Pickett isn't too shabby either. Against the run there are a few more questions for the Packers tackles, as there inevitably will be when your style leans more to the pass than the rush. Opportunities inside for the Steelers perhaps? Defensive End: It's a little harder to measure defensive ends in 3-4's. Unlike their 4-3 counter parts they don't get to the QB anywhere near as often. And unlike a big Nose Tackle, their impact against the run is not as noticeable. They're kind of the forgotten men, cast into the shadows of their bigger team mates (literally). But don't count the 3-4 defensive end out. Justin Smith of the 49ers picked up 8.5 sacks from this position during the regular season (just about the only good thing to happen for the 49ers). That's something that both teams in this game will be hoping they can channel on Sunday. They certainly have the players to do it. For the Steelers listen out for the names Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood. These are not just two spare parts who make up the number for the Steelers. These are two important inside players who make up a big part of what the Steelers do defensively. In particular they seem to have a nose for pursuing the run from the back side, and their stoutness and toughness against the blocks of offensive linemen once again contributes to keeping the linebackers clean to make the tackle. Although guys like Harrison and Farrior get all the glory, it's the D-linemen that make the Steelers run defense what it is. For the Packers, again keep an ear out for Ryan Picketts name as he sometimes ends up on the field together with Raji, and also keep your ears pinned back for Cullen Jenkins. For me, Jenkins is one of the most under rated guys in the NFL. When you look at impact on the field. Not so much raw numbers (though he has 7 sacks) but just genuine, on the field impact. Jenkins is a true warrior of the trenches and is easily as deserving of a Super Bowl ring as anyone on that field Sunday. Linebackers: Now we're starting to get into the highlight reel stuff. Now we're getting to the show time. It's not that I dislike linebackers, I don't by any means, but I do kind of get annoyed at the amount of press they get over their larger counterparts up front. This is especially the case in 3-4 defenses like both teams run, as it's the linemen who do most of the work up front leaving the easy one on one tackles for the backers. That said, let's not play down just how good some of these guys are. The Steelers starting four need little in the way of introductions; LaMarr Woodley, James Harrison, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons. Just about four of the most recognisable names in pro football right now. But I also want to quickly give some love to Larry Foote and Keyaron Fox, kind of the forgotten men of the Steelers D. Foote and Fox may not be starters and they may not get the headlines, highlights, or stories of glory written about them. But as rotation players in this defense they play an important role, spelling the starters to give them a rest while not letting the quality of the defense drop. If anything that's probably harder than starting because you don't have the opportunity to get into any kind of rhythm. All this before we even mention the fact that these guys often slot right in on third downs and around the goal line and nobody even batters an eye lid as the Steelers D just keeps on chugging like nothing has changed. Where Harrison and Woodley really make their money though is against the pass, with the pair combining for 20.5 sacks (Harrison has the 10.5). It's this combined arms pass rush that really makes the difference as far as the Steelers are concerned. Compare this to a 3-4 team like the Cowboys, where DeMarcus Ware had 15.5 sacks and indeed lead the NFL in sacks. That's great, but that's the Cowboys D summed up in one sentence. One player, 15 sacks. The Steelers are more about team D. Two players, 20 sacks. Versatility is the name of the game. If there's one knock on them though, it's play-action. The very thing that makes them so solid against the run - the flow of linebackers to the football - also makes them very vulnerable to play-action. Luckily the Packers aren't a huge running team, but as the Indianapolis Colts have shown before sometimes just the threat of a run is enough to make the play-action game go. As for the Packers, I can shoot off one name and you'll know it straight away; Clay Matthews. 13.5 sacks. But for a 3-4 teams the Packers oddly struggle at times to get their linebackers involved. Names like Desmond Bishop, Frank Zombo and A.J. Hawk still ring a bell. But not in the same way as when you talk about the Steelers backers. We've kind of touched on this already. The Packers rely more on their D-line to make plays and pick up sacks, whereas the Steelers play a more traditional 3-4 where the linemen consume blocks and do the heavy lifting while the backers do most of the glory stuff. The Packers are a little lighter against the run and that could be to their detriment. Expect plenty of fancy blitzing and use of the Nickelback to bring pressure. Oh, and a healthy dose of Mr. Matthews. Secondary: Here is where the Packers start to find their edge on defense. Atari Bigby, Nick Collins, Sam Shields, Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson. Five names that are basically synonymous now with high quality secondary defense. We all know about Woodson, Bigby & Collins, but it's been the advancement of Williams and the rookie Shields that has really had the impact. Their development has given the Packers the ability to be more flexible with their coverages. Without being restricted to defenses that center around the talents of Woodson they have the option of opening up the playbook and giving opposing quarterbacks, even the more experienced ones, nightmares. Just ask Matt Ryan, who suffered at the hands of Williams in the divisional round. And for all the press that Williams has taken, Shields has slipped under the radar. He may be the weak link when all is said and done, but he's far from being a pushover. The combination of these factors makes the Packers defense tough (and dangerous) to throw against. It's a luxury that the Steelers don't exactly have. Not that they're too bad off themselves, just not quite as well off as Green Bay. Guys like Ryan Clark and Will Allen are good. William Gay is a solid utility player. Bryant McFadden is... acceptable. Ike Taylor is pretty darn good and a little under rated. But the secondary still revolves around Troy Polamalu. Where he goes, nobody knows, as he moves up and down the line looking for the right hole to blitz through, often backing out at the last second and bailing downfield. But one man a secondary does not maketh, or words to that effect. The trouble with Polamalu is that he's a great player, but when he goes walk about that leaves the Steelers back end short handed and often a little disorientated. You get the distinct impression that on many plays the rest of the secondary has no idea what Polamalu will do until the ball is snapped, leaving them high and dry. Their biggest strength sometimes becomes their biggest weakest. There's a few offensive players in this game who might fit that bill too. Offensive Linemen: Jerry Jones will be watching on in Cowboys Stadium with a green, envious face. Not just because two teams who are not the Cowboys will be playing a Super Bowl in his stadium, but also because Flozell Adams - the Left Tackle Jerry decided was expendable - will be playing on one of those teams. Adams will take his place on the right side of a line that is... shaky, shall we say. It could only get worse really if Center Maurkice Pouncey somehow got injured and. Oh. Oh yeah I forgot. Pouncey is injured. Oh dear. I jest of course, at least to a degree. The Steelers do have some capable linemen such as Trai Essex and Chris Kemoeatu. They're not bad as a unit. If Ben Roethlisberger didn't hold onto the ball so long they'd probably come off a little better in the sack department. When running the ball they're average. The Packers penchant for rushing the passer at all costs could aid the Steelers in getting good blocking angles, but that's rather a case of relying on the opposition to throw you a bone. To be fair though, the Packers are in much the same boat. Their offensive line has some talent, mainly at the two tackle spots, but they've hardly built a reputation over the last two seasons for being a fearsome unit. They give up too many sacks and they lack the physicality to push people around, especially in short yardage. When your offense has to bring on a defensive tackle to help out at Fullback, that's generally not a good sign. Running Backs: Here at least on offense the Steelers have an all round capability. Rashard Mendenhall, Mewelde Moore, Issac Redman and to some extent rookie Jonathan Dwyer make a great team. They all have talent. They all have burst. They all have power. It's shame about their offensive line at times and the fact that the Steelers aren't quite the smash mouth power football team they once were. In fact they're not really at all like that anymore, favouring the pass. But at least they're not the Packers at this position. I don't dispute that the Packers have coped reasonably well with the loss of Ryan Grant, but there's a big difference between reasonably well and very good. Brandon Jackson and James Starks are ok and John Kuhn has turned out to be a pretty handy Fullback, but then we all know the Packers aren't a big running team right now. Receivers: I'm going to chuck the tight ends in here along with the wide outs. It's late, I'm tired, so tough. Starting with Pittsburgh, they have a fairly solid blend at receiver. Hines Ward, Antwann Randle El, Arnaz Battle and Heath Miller give the Steelers experience. Mike Wallacs, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown bring the speed. Of particular note is the value of guys like Ward and Miller in a game like this. They have relatively safe hands, cool heads and big game experience. Their efforts will help set the tone for the Steelers offense. But Green Bay is looking at another position win here, especially against the Steelers often so-so secondary. Greg Jennings. Donald Driver. James Jones. Jordy Nelson. Donald Lee. That should be enough said right there. This is simply one of the most complete receiving corps in the NFL and with you-know-who slinging the ball to them, and with their propensity for running after the catch, it's no wonder the Packers have one of the most respected offenses in the league. Quarterbacks: It was always going to come down to this. The two gun slingers going head to head. Roethlisberger versus Rodgers. Neither team has such a strong running game that it can take over the game with. Thus, given the quality of the defenses, much of this game will rest on the ability of Rodgers and Roethlisberger to keep plays alive and find their receivers down field. Roethlisberger certainly knows a thing or two about keeping plays alive. It's basically become a trademark for 'Big Ben'. It's not always a good thing though. Despite his reputation for being very hard to bring down and an uncanny awareness for when a play is truly dead (a trait sorely lacking in Tony Romo for example), it is also a symptom of his occasional blindness to certain receivers. I can't tell you the exact reason why. To do that I'd have to sit down and interview the guy while pouring over hours of film that I don't currently have access to. But at an educated guess I'd say that it stems from a lack of trust in some receivers combined with a strong desire to feed the ball to others. While this can serve as a positive when he extends plays in critical situations, my concern is that he also misses prime opportunities to get the ball out of his hands and make plays, albeit sometimes short gains. Against a strong Packers pass rush it'll be interesting to see how long he responds. Will he hold the ball, fight off would be tacklers and try to make big plays? Or will he adapt to the conditions and play a little small ball? Rodgers could be just as intriguing. He - like Roehtlisberger - has a reputation for using his legs to extend plays. But unlike Roethlisberger, Rodgers favours the more downfield approach to running, often picking up first downs with a mobility that's reminiscent of Steve Young. How many opportunities he'll get to do this against the Steelers will be interesting. The variety of the blitzes might leave holes that are not immediately recognisable and/or hide late rushers whom Rodgers runs into. More to the point, given the tough reputation of the Steelers D I'm intrigued as to how willing Rodgers will be to take flight down the field. Given the nature of the game, I suspect Rodgers will take his chances and put his health in the hands of the footballing Gods in search of a ring. Where he'll make his biggest impact though is throwing the ball deep. His receivers are primed and ready. The question will be how well he copes with the various blitz's and the mental battle that is anticipated between himself and Troy Polamalu. Rodgers has already shown he has the makings of an elite level QB. Another season of production at this level will secure that title in my eyes. We know he can sling it and we know he can do accurately. Can he cope with the extreme pressure of the Super Bowl. Based on the evidence we have, I'd say yes. Can he out perform Roethlisberger, a guy who has already earned his elite status? Well you'll just have to wait and see I guess. Personally I can't wait. If I had to pick a winner, I'd probably take the Steelers. I think their defense has a little more in it than the Packers. But it's a testament to how good Pittsburgh is that I consider them one of the few teams that can legitimately hang in the same arena as the Steelers. It's going to be a hell of a contest and the winner will truly be worthy of the title as the best team in the NFL in 2010, a feat all the more impressive given the strong nature of the league this year.

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