I’m not a NFL coordinator and therefore won’t act like I hold the secrets on how either team can win Super Bowl XLV. (Wait a minute – I don’t hold any secrets? What the fu…)
When it comes down to it, putting together a solid game plan is only half the battle. The players still have to execute and avoid mistakes and a great scheme won’t save a team that turns the ball over and commits penalties. But here are five ways the Steelers can get the upper hand on the Packers and take home the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday.
1. Run the ball right down Green Bay’s throat.
You have to look hard, but the Packers’ defense does have a weakness. Green Bay allowed 107.7 yards per game on the ground this season to finish a respectable 11th in that category, but they also allowed rushers to average 4.5 yards per carry. Only six teams (Indy, Washington, Denver, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Buffalo) gave up more yards per carry than the Packers, who struggled mostly against teams with power running games. The Dolphins, Vikings, Lions and Falcons (during the regular season – not the postseason) all had success running against Green Bay’s front seven. The Packers went a combined 3-3 against those teams, so running the ball at GB doesn’t necessary mean victory but it’ll certainly help the Steelers’ cause. The Steelers were 6-1 when Rashard Mendenhall rushed for over 80 yards this season. Feeding him the ball can help slow Green Bay’s pass rush, keep Aaron Rodgers off the field and help Pittsburgh control the tempo of the game.
2. Disrupt Rodgers’ rhythm by being physical with his receivers.
What the Eagles, Bears (in the first quarter) and especially, the Falcons, did in trying to defense Green Bay’s passing game was an absolute sin. Aaron Rodgers has outstanding vision, accuracy and makes wise decisions. He can read blitzes as well as any quarterback in the league and he gets the ball out of his hand in a timely manner. That’s why playing his receivers seven yards off the ball is a travesty. Midway through the second quarter the Bears realized they had to roll the dice with their corners and start being more aggressive in coverage. That’s part of the reason the Packers struggled to move the ball as well as they did after the first quarter. Ike Taylor is a fine corner and can certainly hold his own. But the Packers will look to exploit Bryant McFadden and William Gay, so both defensive backs must be physical at the line of scrimmage in order to disrupt Rodgers’ timing. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are two of the finest pass-rushers in the league. But instead of solely relying on the pressure that their front seven can produce, Pittsburgh also needs to be aggressive in its secondary or else Rodgers will continue his assault on opposing backfields.
3. Mask weaknesses along the offensive line by playing to strengths.
Everyone is quick to mention how vulnerable the Steelers’ offensive line is thanks to injuries and poor play, but the fact is they’ve averaged 28 points per game in the playoffs. So obviously they’ve managed to work with what they have and still win. Granted, Maurkice Pouncey’s injury is big. Doug Legursky could probably start for several teams and is a fine backup, but Pouncey is stronger at the point of attack and has been the Steelers’ best O-linemen this season. You can’t replace that kind of production. But somehow, the Steelers always manage. Part of that is thanks to Mendenhall’s development as a runner and Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to escape pressure. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is a weakness that Green Bay can exploit, but there are ways that the Steelers can neutralize what the Packers want to do offensively. One way, as discussed above, is to run right at them. Another way is to use tight ends and backs to help pick up the pressure. Staying aggressive by throwing the ball vertically is another way to keep the Packers on their heels. The Steelers are one of those rare teams that play to their strengths instead of hiding their weaknesses. If they can do that again this weekend, they’ll win yet another Lombardi Trophy.
4. Arians needs to stay aggressive.
Pittsburgh fans have had an up-and-down relationship with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians throughout the years, but nobody can deny that his call in the fourth quarter to seal the win against the Jets wasn’t brilliant. Instead of lining up and running the ball right into the teeth of New York’s defense, Arians, called a five-receiver set with an empty backfield and threw the ball. The result was a first down completion and a reserved trip to Dallas. Those are the kinds of aggressive play calls (and give Mike Tomlin credit for telling Arians to go for the win) that the Steelers need this Sunday against the Packers. Arians doesn’t need to outthink himself, but a coordinator can never be too unpredictable. He certainly has the weapons at his disposal to match up with Green Bay’s defense and he needs to take advantage of all them. And for the love of football, he can’t ditch the vertical passing game that has worked so well for the Steelers this season.
5. Unleash Troy Polamalu.
The best thing about the Steelers’ defense is that every man knows what his job is and realizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Troy Polamalu is great because his teammates allow him to be great. He can freelance because everyone else executes around him. With the Packers expected to throw early and often, this is a game that Polamalu can take over with a couple of huge turnovers. He was nicked up during the postseason, but the two weeks off had to be great for his injured Achilles/ankle. There’s nothing I can write here that Dick LeBeau hasn’t already thought of in terms of scheming. But I will say this: if Polamalu has a quiet day, Pittsburgh won’t win this game. He is their defense. LeBeau has to get him up near the line of scrimmage, drop him into coverage and just let Troy Polamalu be Troy Polamalu.