Four questions surrounding Super Bowl XLV

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In our final sponsored post for T.G.I. Friday’s, here are five questions surrounding the Packers and Steelers as they prepare for Super Bowl XLV.

1. Can the Steelers’ O-line hold up?
While the team hasn’t officially ruled him out, it appears as though center Maurkice Pouncey won’t play on Sunday. That means Doug Legursky will once again take his place, just as he did in the AFC title game when Pouncey first suffered the high ankle sprain. Legursky could probably start for many teams around the league, but he’s not the same player Pouncey is. He’s not as strong at the point of attack and he isn’t the mauler Pouncey is in the running game. There’s no doubt Legursky will have his hands full against Packers’ NT B.J. Raji, who has had quite the postseason so far. Of course, Legursky might not be the Steelers’ biggest problem along their offensive line. People forget that they’re starting two backup offensive tackles in Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott, and the latter could have a ton of problems with Clay Matthews. Granted, the Steelers have averaged nearly four touchdowns thus far in the postseason, so clearly they’ve been able to mask their weaknesses. That said, whether or not their O-line can hold up against the Packers’ stout pass-rush is arguably the biggest question surrounding their chances of winning.

2. Will the Packers be able to slow Mendenhall?
When Rashard Mendenhall rushed for over 80 yards this season (including in the playoffs), the Steelers were 6-1. The Packers had trouble this year with power rushing attacks. When teams were patient with the running game and kept pounding the edges of Green Bay’s defense, they had a fair amount of success. The Packers yielded 4.5 yards per carry this season, which was among the worst in the NFL in that category. If the Steelers can get Mendenhall going early, they’ll accomplish a couple of things in the process. For starters, they’ll leave Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s high-powered passing game on the sidelines. The Steelers will also be able to control the tempo of the game and if Green Bay’s safeties have to come up and play run support, then Pittsburgh could open up the play action pass. The Packers must stop Mendenhall.

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Super Bowl XLV Prediction: Steelers vs. Packers

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws a pass against the New York Jets in the second quarter in week 8 of the NFL season at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on October 31, 2010. The Packers defeated the Jets 9-0. UPI /John Angelillo

When I saw that oddsmakers had made the Packers 2.5-point favorites for Super Bowl XLV, my immediate reaction was: “Pittsburgh’s an underdog? Ha! Give me the Steelers…you’re welcome.”

Why wouldn’t you take the Steelers on Sunday? They’ve played in two Super Bowls the past six years and won them both. They have a more experienced head coach who oversees a more experienced quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger is 2-0 in the “big one” and thanks to Dick LeBeau’s guidance, Pittsburgh’s defense often resembles an immovable force.

But then I got to thinking: Tom Brady lost in the Super Bowl, as did Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. Bill Belichick has lost in the championship, as has Mike Holmgren, Bill Cowher and even Tom Landry.

Experience flies out the window once that ball has been kicked off the tee at the start of the game. What football essentially comes down to is execution, avoiding mistakes and beating the guy across from you.

Both of these teams can execute. Both of these teams can limit mistakes and both of these teams have the players on each side of the ball that can win individual battles. Which team will accomplish those three feats on Sunday is anyone’s guess, and that’s the great thing about this particular matchup – it’s so even.

But when you get down to the brass tacks, the Steelers have a big problem along their offensive line. Losing Maurkice Pouncey hurts, but having two offensive tackles that are below average pass-blockers is a bigger problem when you consider the Packers finished second in the league in sacks. Granted, Pittsburgh finished first in that category but I have more faith in Green Bay’s O-line protecting Aaron Rodgers than I do the Steelers’ front five protecting Big Ben.

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Five ways the Steelers beat the Packers in Super Bowl XLV

Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is seen on the field after the Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens 13-10 at M & T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on December 5, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

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.

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Five ways the Packers beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers speaks to the media inside Cowboys Stadium for the Green Bay Packers session of Media Day ahead of Super Bowl XLV between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers in Arlington, Texas, USA, 01 February 2011. The Super Bowl XLV will be played on 06 February 20111 EPA/TANNEN MAURY fotoglif966652

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 Packers can get the upper hand on the Steelers and take home the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday. (Don’t worry Pittsburgh fan, I’ll do one for the Steelers, too.)

1. Get the Steelers’ base defense off the field.
Mike McCarthy is a smart guy but he’s not going to throw anything at Dick LeBeau that the defensive coordinator hasn’t already seen in his 35-plus years of coaching. That’s why it’s important that McCarthy doesn’t overthink things. Yes, James Starks gives Green Bay’s offense more balance. But James Starks isn’t going to win Super Bowl XLV – not when Pittsburgh is allowing just 61.6 yards per game. The strength of the Steelers’ defense is its front seven. When LeBeau can keep his base on the field, he can disguise his pressure and be as aggressive as he wants to be. When opposing teams have had success against Pittsburgh, they’ve forced the Steelers into their nickel package early. That’s why the use of three-and-four receiver sets is vital for the Packers. Aaron Rodgers has an outstanding release and he knows how to get the ball out of his hand quickly. Keeping a running back in to block will be key, as LeBeau will probably drum up pressure in efforts to keep Rodgers out of rhythm. But if the Packers can keep nickel back William Gay on the field and successfully attack Bryant McFadden (who was burned by Braylon Edwards earlier this season and who also has been dealing with an abdominal injury), then Green Bay should have plenty of success offensively. They certainly have the weapons to attack Pittsburgh’s secondary.

2. Shut down Mendenhall.
Excuse the simplicity of this point but it’s important: the Packers must stop Rashard Mendenhall because quite frankly, he may be the key to whether or not Pittsburgh wins on Sunday. When Mendenhall rushed for over 80 yards this season, the Steelers were 6-1 (which includes their win over the Jets in the AFC title game). In their four losses this year, Mendenhall rushed for only 79 (vs. Ravens), 71 (Saints), 50 (Patriots) and 99 yards (Jets). And in those losses, only once did he carry the ball over 20 times (against Baltimore in Week 4). Everyone saw what happened when the Packers took a two-touchdown lead against the Falcons in the Divisional Round: Michael Turner was rendered useless and Atlanta’s offense became one-dimensional. Green Bay’s run defense ranks a respectable 11th, but they’re allowing 107.7 yards per game this season. If Mendenhall rushes for a C-note, then the Packers could be in trouble because that could mean that the Steelers have control of the tempo. But take Mendenhall out (either with good offensive play or stout run defense) and Green Bay may win easily.

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Mendenhall powers the Steelers back to the Super Bowl

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall (L) embraces New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez (R) after the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the New York Jets 24-19 in the AFC Championship game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 23 January 2011. The Steelers will go on to face the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV on 06 February 2011 in Arlington, Texas. EPA/JUSTIN LANE fotoglif933714

Here are five quick-hit observations on the Steelers’ 24-19 win over the Jets in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

1. Mendenhall ran like he was mad at the ground.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Rashard Mendenhall run with more determination than he did Sunday night. He shredded the Jets for 95 rushing yards in the first half and finished with 121 yards on 27 carries and one touchdown. He also caught two passes for 32 yards and would have scored on one of those receptions had he stayed on his feet. He now has three touchdowns this postseason and has provided the Steelers’ offense with balance. Against the Jets, he rarely went down on first contact and he flashed terrific speed on a 35-yard jaunt in the first half. No running back has ever rushed for more yards against the Jets since Rex Ryan took over as head coach in 2009. Mendenhall set the tone for Pittsburgh’s win.

2. Bruce Arians shows some stones.
Pittsburgh fans have had a roller coaster relationship with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians over the years, but they had to have loved his gutsy 3rd and 6 pass call with less than two minutes remaining. How many times do teams run the ball in that situation, get stopped, punt and then have to rely on their defense to close out the game? Arians knows he has a great defense so if the clock is stopped because of an incompletion, so what? But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s 14-yard competition to Antonio Brown (how big has this kid been the last two weeks?), the Steelers were able to pick up a first down and run the rest of the clock out. They didn’t even give the Jets an opportunity to win. Great call.

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