Super Bowl Pre-Game Special
February 3, 2011
"We are not going to make a negative out of what a wonderful week we have waiting for us. We're going to embrace it all, enjoy it all." --Mike Tomlin
�I haven�t been out carousing.� � Aaron Rodgers
Here we go! The Stillers return to the Super Bowl for the third time in about 5 years. Pour yourself an Imp�n�Iron, and join me for a few pre-game rants and observations. This could take a while.
The Stillers� opponent, as pointed out in the media, couldn�t be more similar in many ways. Running, scrambling, play-extending QBs? Check, for both teams. 3-4 defenses at the top of the heap in points allowed? Yep. Impact defensive players who in fact placed 1 and 2 for Defensive Player of the Year? You got it once again.
Yes, the teams are so similar in some ways they ought to call this one the �Mirror Bowl.� How close, for example, were the defenses? The Stillers gave up just 14.5 points per game while Green Bay came in at 15.
Beyond that, you have these similarities: two legendary blue-collar franchises with a legacy of toughness and a disdain for the flashy. Noll, Lombardi, Nietschke, Lambert � the comparisons could go on and on.
But it�s the differences between the teams I�d like to focus on, which to me will determine the winner of Super Bowl XLV. First, let�s start with the obvious: the Stillers take 25 guys with Bowl experience to Dallas, as I�m sure you�ve heard, while the Packers bring just 2. One coaching staff is stocked with Super Bowl veterans, the other � well, not so much.
Secondly, let�s look at the QBs: one has played in two Super Bowls, the other is still wondering what it�s like. Ben Roethlisberger, aka �that other quarterback playing Sunday� has been there, done that.
There�s been a lot of debate about whether or not the �experience thing� means much, but I know this for sure: when the two teams take the field, the Stillers will be reacting to the Packers, while the Packers will spend the first few minutes of the game adjusting to the Super Bowl.
For those guys on TV claiming the experience thing means nothing, recall no less an all-time great than Dermontii Dawson hiking the ball five yards over Neil O�Donnell�s head in Super Bowl XXX. We�ve seen ourselves what nerves can do to first-time entrants.
Packers� Head Coach Mike �Greenfield Bay� McCarthy has said he�s not preparing for the Super Bowl, he�s preparing to play the Pittsburgh Stillers. Don�t you just love rookies? We�ll see how that works out for him the first few minutes of the game.
Don�t get me wrong, I believe the Packers present a greater challenge than the last two opponents the Stillers have faced in the Super Bowl. Green Bay fields a more rounded and complete team than either the �08 Cardinals or �05 Seahawks. On paper, the 2010 Packers are the best Super Bowl opponent the Stillers have faced in the Bowl since the 1994 Dallas Cowboys. Obviously the odds makers agree, installing the Packers as an opening 2.5 point favorite.
So Who Really Has the Edge in Super Bowl XLV?
In my Jets� pre-game I wrote the following: �I believe this game will come down to an intangible: the Stillers� tougher, more physical style of play compared to both New England and Indianapolis.�
The big bad Jets found out, getting their noses broken and going down 24-0 before they could breathe. Heath Miller was knocking guys 10 yards down the field. This same intangible is what will give the Stillers an edge this time, despite their underdog status. For all their big men up front, the Packers have somewhat of a finesse defense, preferring to play out of the nickel. We�ll see how that works out against the Stillers� base run sets.
Some (lately Green Bay types) chuckle at the �physical Stillers� idea, as if every team brings the wood equally. With the Stillers, though, there�s this: the offense is physical across the board � the WRs will hit you just as soon as run, the QB welcomes your rush and will swat you away like a fly. How many teams can make that claim?
The Packers� road to the Bowl has taken them through Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago � not one of those teams, in my estimation, match the Stillers in that much-discussed category of �toughness.� The Eagles may have a tough rep, but in fact the Packers used a bludgeoning run game as much as passing to take the win. Atlanta? They haven�t been tough guys since the days of the �Grits Blitz.� And as for Chicago, while their defense stiffened up after the first quarter in the NFC Championship game, the net takeaway from the game was whether or not their QB was a wimp.
Of course, the Packers will counter that they can match anyone in physical play, featuring as they do a trio of basically nose tackles on their defensive front: Ryan Pickett, Howard Green and B.J. Raji, all of whom come in at about 340 pounds.
However, the toughness I�m referring to with the Stillers isn�t just about the physical; it�s about mental toughness even more. The Stillers in the playoffs are all about who makes the big plays when it counts, especially late in the game. It�s about the will to win, but also the know-how: the core of this Stiller team has shown it can get the job done even in the Super Bowl. It�s a tested toughness, and just as the Packers will be a tougher opponent to handle for the Stillers � the opposite also applies.
Then there are other intangibles: I believe the Stillers will use their underdog status to their advantage. Likewise, there are individual incentives: Ben Roethlisberger, for example, is one win away from completing the �shove it up their ass� tour, the award to be handed out by both Terry Bradshaw and Roger Goodell. (Won�t that be an awesome sight to behold!)
With Manning and Brady out of the picture, the sports media have chosen to leapfrog Aaron Rodgers right over Roethlisberger. So did the fans, apparently: an ESPN poll ran 60-40 Rodgers over Ben as to �Which QB would you rather have playing for you in the Super Bowl?�
Don�t think for a moment that all the Rodgers jock-riding won�t motivate a competitor like Roethlisberger � whatever negative vibes the press shoots him about Milledgeville will be canceled by all the Rodgers worship (more on this John Cena wannabe later).
The Progression of Pressure
The Super Bowl is a game like no other, and therefore must be discussed differently than any other. This begins with the product of the two-week hypefest that accompanies it � and the extra pressure it creates on its participants.
The mental effects on a QB in the playoffs shouldn�t be discounted; they go through what I would term a �pressure progression� as they advance closer to the Super Bowl. For example, the leap from regular season to playoffs pressure is huge, almost as much as the move from college to pro level. The �pressure levels� go as follows: regular season, then playoffs, then the Championship Game, then, finally, the greatest pressure of all, the Super Bowl.
Remember how skittish Ben was in his first playoff game, vs. the Jets. This was after a very successful rookie year; nonetheless, on the bigger stage he was tight from the beginning.� Despite his two-pick, 57.8 rating performance, the Stillers went on to narrowly beat the Jets. Again his nerves surfaced in the AFC Championship Game, Ben not seeing a wide-open Ward (which could�ve resulted in a TD) and instead lobbing the ball up nervously � resulting in a long pick-six that practically put the game out of reach before halftime.
The next year, however, Ben came out flying, having had playoff experience. He excelled all the way through the Championship Game (having played in one already) posting a blistering 124.9 rating (on the road no less). Then came the crash � again, the move up in pressure got to him in his first Super Bowl. (Obviously you saw the difference in his second Bowl, as he came out calm and focused from the start.)
As a second-time playoff participant, Rodgers took the first two games by storm, posting 122.5 and 136.8 rating games. But in his �next level� game, the NFC Championship, he dropped off a cliff all the way down to 55.4. Rodgers had never been there before, and it showed. Why nobody is talking about this, is beyond me. It could be a clue to future performance.
Now comes the highest pressure-progression level of all. Rodgers could be immune to it and post a high first-time-Bowl rating game, as guys like Aikman did, but you never know � at least not til after they�ve played the game. The Stillers, on the other hand, won�t have to contend with this issue.
Super Strategy: Defense
Kurt Warner was on the radio recently talking about how he would attack the Stillers defense if he were playing Sunday (taking a little shot at Ken Whisenhunt I believe). His strategy: spread the field. If you recall, the Cardinals came out with a curiously conservative offensive set, trying to run the ball in the first half. In the second half, behind, they finally spread it, and chucked it. I�m sure I don�t have to tell you what happened after that.
I�m waiting for a team to come out spreading from the beginning. That�s why the Stillers should prepare for a shootout, and not be afraid of a higher-scoring game (the lower-scoring game favors the Stillers IMHO). Note to you media types: Ben Roethlisberger has already beaten Aaron Rodgers in a track-meet passing duel.
I expect the Packers to come out of the tunnel throwing; this will leave them open, of course, to edge rushes. The Stillers should take advantage of this strategy by smacking Rodgers every chance they get. Charge the Packers a toll for every pass, paid by Aaron Rodgers.
Likewise, the Stiller DBs must be physical with the Green Bay WRs, knocking them off their routes as much as possible. Rodgers will eat the soft zone, so some chances must be taken in favor of bumping and running.
As Mill pointed out in his last commentary, the Stillers called off the dogs in the second half vs. the Jets. The Stillers cannot be lulled into sending 3 or 4, giving the QB time to look downfield. If Flacco and Sanchez can take advantage, imagine the damage Rodgers could do.
The Packers feature a WR group said to be the NFL�s best. Donald Driver is the known name, but Rodgers looks often to MAC product Greg Jennings (76 catches for 1,265 yards). Not a blazer, Jennings runs precise routes and hits the angles, making him a downfield threat nonetheless (16.6 YPC). In watching film of the �09 game, Packer receivers enjoyed free releases, with Jennings sometimes covered by Lawrence Timmons � a mismatch with disastrous results. Again, it�s important to get physical with receivers coming off the line.
I believe the Packers are vulnerable to edge rushes, the weak spot of their o-line being their tackles. Both Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga can be attacked and beaten � Lamarr Woodley had better have a big game or else his Twitter comments will haunt him forever. The Packers have yet to face a defense with players as intense as James Harrison. Clifton will struggle both with �Deebo� and Brett Keisel.
The Packers strength is at guard, with the excellent Josh Sitton manning the right side. Sunday we�ll get to see just how far Ziggy Hood has come � this to me is the marquee match-up. Much is being made of the Stillers not having Pouncey, but the Green Bay Center, Scott Wells, is a disaster waiting to happen matched up with Casey Hampton. Look for Hampton not just to clog the run lanes as usual, but even notch a sack or two.
It�s important to note that the Packers have faced teams that run 4-3 defenses through the playoffs. The Packers may be familiar with the 3-4 in practice, but it remains to be seen how they�ll handle the Stillers� version in real time.
Watching Rodgers open up the NFC Championship Game by playing pitch-and-catch, it�s clear how the Stillers can�t allow the game to start. Yes, Green Bay can light it up, but for all you cheeseheads pulling for a shootout, consider these names: Wallace, Ward, Brown, Sanders and Miller. You might want to be careful what you wish for.
BRYANT FADDEN: X-FACTOR? McFadden�s caught a lot of heat for his play, and no player will benefit more from the 2 weeks� rest than he will. Rested from injury, I believe McFadden will surprise us with a big performance in the Bowl.
Which Troy Shows Up?
Key question: will Polamalu be the marauding hun wreaking havoc in the opponent�s backfield, or will he be just another safety dropping back? The answer to that will go a long way towards determining the winner of Super Bowl XLV. The Stillers� best chances on defense come when Polamalu is a threat both in the backfield and up on the line of scrimmage. The Stillers need Troy to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, too.
The Stillers on Offense
A lot will be made of the Stillers� o-line troubles, but remember, Ben Roethlisberger is the one QB you want when you have a beaten-up line. Rodgers eludes rushes, while Roethlisberger expects to get hit � he doesn�t just get away from pressure, he beats the contact itself. That�s what makes him unique. Running backs have stats tallying yards after contact, maybe QBs should too.
The Packers will feature John Kuhn, as readers know a favorite of mine from his Stiller days. Kuhn has surprising speed for a man his size, and the Packers use his receiving as well as his running skills. His biggest asset is his heart.
Palmer�s Prediction: Bunch it Up
I believe the Stillers will employ their bunch formations (close grouping of WRs and TEs) as they did against both the Ravens and the Jets. The Packers like to play man pass defense, which the bunch formation can defeat by scattering the receivers at the snap � and fouling up assignments right and left. Not only that, but the Stillers can run from these sets too, further adding to the confusion. The Bunch formation allows to defeat formation: should the Packers line up in their 2-4-5, for example, the Stillers can blast them on the ground with the bunch WRs and TEs blocking rather than running routes.
The Packers struggled somewhat with Matt Forte, who ran 17 times for 74 yards in the Championship Game (4.1 YPC). Green Bay�s defense ranked a lowly 28th vs. the run, giving up an average of 4.64 YPC � that�s where the �mirror� ends.
I believe the Stillers will target Clay Matthews in the run game, especially behind Flozell Adams. If Miller � who�s back to his 2005 blocking form � can handle Matthews it will be a long day for Green Bay. The Stillers will look to test Matthews�s will � and see if they can break it.
Rashard Mendenhall, MVP? Well, he certainly made a case for himself as AFC Championship player of the game. I�ll be honest about Mendenhall � I wasn�t for the Stillers drafting him. Likewise, I was somewhat disappointed with his performance the first couple of years; I wanted to see the same breakaway runs I�d seen him pull off in college. But now I see him for what I think he is: more of a younger Bettis than a Willie Parker. He may not pop the 70-yarders, but the 25-yard burst isn�t bad. The Packer run defense isn�t up to the Jets� standards, and the Stillers lit them up, so it will be interesting to see what happens Sunday.
Aaron Rodgers: Somebody Knock His Lights Out
Of all the things I hate in sports right now, Aaron Rodgers�s cheesy �belt fasten� routine ranks up there at the top. It�s not just that this stupid taunt throws me into a foaming rage each time I see it � it�s how everybody lets him get away with the taunting, �cuz, you know, he�s Aaron Rodgers, flavor-of-the-month!
In case you�re not familiar with it, Rodgers (no doubt a big WWE fan) acts like he�s strapping on the title belt every time he scores. Some defend this taunting claiming it�s just Rodgers celebrating, but sorry � it�s a rub-in, intended or not. Not only that, but it�s not even original: Freddie Mitchell was pulling this very gag years before Rodgers �created it in practice� as he claims. Cheesy taunting and thievery? That�s double the reasons to lay this guy out.
Remember, this guy�s a QB, not some WR you�d expect this kind of crap from � imagine if Ben pulled some stunt like this every time he scored. And yet the media not only let him slide, they glorify him for it. Don�t let me see this punk do this stolen shtick even once Sunday!
For the first time in the playoffs, the Stillers will face a team whose special teams � particularly kick coverage � may be just as much a weakness. If there ever was a week to run back a kick, this it it � let�s just hope the Stillers are the ones doing the running.
The Bottom Line
If this were just another regular season game, I�d look at the match-up and say, sure I can see why Green Bay is the favorite. But this is the Super Bowl, and with all due respect to Coach McCarthy, this is not to be looked at as just �another game.� This is not just about X�s and O�s, it�s about how you handle the outsized, over exaggerated drama that is the Super Bowl.
How will Aaron Rodgers react when he�s standing in the tunnel right before the game? Ben Roethlisberger already knows how that feels. How will Rodgers feel when he steps out into the flashes of nearly a hundred thousand cameras? Ben Roethlisberger has been there, done that. You can say you�re prepared for the situation, but until you know � you don�t know.
The Stillers looked fresh and relaxed during media week, even wisecracking. The Packers seemed more focused on � as Rodgers said � �not saying the wrong thing.� This tells me they�re reacting to the limelight rather than basking in it, not surprising for a first-time participant. I�ve never played in a Super Bowl, but listening to guys who have, many have said the same thing: �I wish I had enjoyed the week more before the game.� The Packers don�t look like they�re having too much fun.
One more thought: the Stillers have reached the Bowl without great (statistics-wise anyway) performances from their two marquee players, Ben and Troy. Imagine if they break out � something for the Green Bay crowd to think about.
Here�s another �mirror� comparison, and a question: why is Ben getting hit for his low passing numbers vs. the Jets, but Rodgers is still getting the love? Both guys had poor statistics, but here�s a key difference. Ben made the big plays late in the game when it mattered, while Rodgers was practically just a spectator in the second half against Chicago. Rodgers watched as others decided the game�s outcome, while Ben sealed the game himself. I�ve yet to hear one analyst mention this.
Doing What You Don�t Do Normally
In big games, it�s all about going against your tendencies, to hit your opponents with things they haven�t seen on film. For example, the Stillers blitzed little-used Ike Taylor against the Jets � going against tendencies. The result was a fumble and a TD that cemented the rout before halftime.
What haven�t the Stillers shown? One thing I can think of: short passes to Mendenhall. Or how about this shocker � a screen pass to Redman. The Packers will never see it coming.
Roger the Rat Hangs Roethlisberger Out to Dry
I wrote a piece recently talking about Roger Goodell�s meddling in the on-field game. But this time he�s gone too far. Sports Illustrated�s Peter King raised a stink recently when he published these comments from the commissioner regarding Roethlisberger�s suspension: "I bet two dozen players ... Not one, not a single player, went to his (Roethisberger�s) defense. It wasn't personal in a sense, but all kinds of stories like, 'He won't sign my jersey.' ''
King went on to apologize for misrepresenting the �fact� that Goodell was talking about Steeler players, when really he was referring to players from OTHER teams. But it�s not just King who needs to account for his actions � it�s Goodell himself. Roger the Rat not only leaked private, closed-door information regarding a player to the media, he timed it to happen just before the start of the NFL playoffs. That�s just outrageous, and I hope it throws you into the same foaming rage as it did me! That�s right, Goodell the lawyer, who should know the value of privileged information more than anyone, spills it to the media. Are you KIDDING me?
Remember, Roger guarded the details of the Spygate investigation to the point of being accused of sweeping things under the rug. His lips were sealed when it came to the Favre fiasco, too. When it comes to the Stillers, however, Goodell has no problem actually publicizing the details of the investigation. And ratting out Roethlisberger.
According to King, Ben felt �railroaded� over his suspension (understandably, in my book). In true smug-ass fashion, Goodell answered: �the one thing I take a little bit of issue with is when guys tell me they're being screwed.'' What about when guys get legitimately screwed, like Ben just did, Commissioner? And what about when it�s you doing the screwing?
King took the public fall, but you have some serious �splaining to do, Commissioner. Goodell hung Roethlisberger out to dry � nothing short of it. Perhaps the Commissioner ought to be given a little time off from the game, in violation of his own personal conduct policy.
Yes, coming soon to a TV near you: Peter King, Roger Goodell in �Everybody Hates Ben.� A new comedy series that�s about to be canceled. Ha ha.
Look for the Stillers to use this sorry situation as motivation, too.
The Stillers� Edge
Here�s the edge I give the Stillers: they can win both types of contests, high-scoring and low. Green Bay can take the track meet, but remember, the Stillers have recently beaten them at that game. But should we see a grinding, defensive type of game, that situation clearly favors the Stillers. Green Bay will have to show they can hang in a slugfest. The Stillers� steel toughness is mental, forged from playing � and winning � many a close game. No panic, no fear.
The challenge is that the Stillers must face the most dangerous of opponents, the quarterback-driven team (something neither the Ravens nor Jets are). They must not allow a repeat of their two worst defensive showings, the New Orleans and New England dink-fests. Let the Packers have their passing yards, just don�t let them in the end zone. Above all, don�t just send 3 guys and hope for the best. Noone ever won a Super Bowl by playing meek defense.
However, that quarterback focus can work against you, too. The Stillers, I believe, are the more rounded team, with the better run game. They can survive a lesser performance by their QB more than Green Bay can. I�m not sure the Packers can win if Rodgers isn�t sharp � I believe the Stillers can even if their QB ends up with sub-par passing stats. Again, advantage Stillers.
The Packers have practically coasted into the Bowl, opening bang!-bang! with leads and never really having to play catch-up. Let�s see what happens should that situation change. Rodgers has had three fast starts � maybe some nerves stop that from happening this time, and changing the tone of the game. You never know.
Here we go Stillers� as they said back in day � �whatever it takes.� Nothing�s worse than losing a Super Bowl, so bring the trophy home. Let the other guys talk about how proud they are to go as far as they did. Besides, there�s too much at stake: win your third, and they�re no longer talking about Brady and Belichick, but Tomlin and Ben.
Remember: two playoff wins, two quiet performances from both Roethlisberger and Polamalu. All the Stillers need is for one of those guys to explode� last time the Stillers faced Green Bay, they featured Tyrone Carter at safety. This time it will be Troy Polamalu. You do the math.
The Stillers have played two terrific halves in two games. They need to step it up and play two terrific halves in one game now. Time to dig up those �60 Minute Men� T-shirts. It�s going to take nothing less than a complete game against these guys.
A special shout-out to Antonio �Loudmouth� Brown, another MAC guy I�ve been pulling for since day one. Glad to see you�ve arrived buddy � take one to the house!
THIS JUST IN: As I write, the media are trying to make a big deal of Roethlisberger�s �big night out� at a piano bar (which, by the way, included reports of Ben buying drinks for everyone, and tipping nicely). This follows on the heels of Hines Ward�s supposed visit to a Dallas strip club. Meanwhile, the media are blabbing on about Aaron Rodgers spending his nights in his room, studying film. Are we smelling another Super Bowl XI-type deal? The Raiders reportedly went out on the town, partying it up, while the Vikings were cloistered in their rooms near the airport. Oakland went on to spank Minnesota, and it was said afterwards that the Vikings were too tight entering the game. The Packers have been careful to say the right things at their press days, while the Stillers talked, let�s just say, pretty openly. Will the Packers be the new Vikings? Let�s just hope.
OK, I�m ready and full of hatred for the Green Bay Packers. Time to take home number seven. And to think, the Stillers grabbed their last one just two years ago.
Hey I�m not greedy, I don�t have to see my team win the Super Bowl every season.
Every other year would be fine.