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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Four overrated factors for Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) turns upfield during the first quarter of their NFC Championship playoff game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on January 23, 2011. The Packers defeated the Bears 21-14 to advance to the Super Bowl. UPI /Mark Cowan

Is anyone else sick of hearing about these so-called factors as it pertains to Super Bowl XLV? It’s enough to make someone stab their own neck with a soldering iron.

1. The Steelers have more experience.
Talk to someone who believes the Steelers will beat the Packers and one of the first things out of their mouths is “the experience factor.” Pittsburgh has it – Green Bay doesn’t. So mark it down: Steelers 52, Packers 3. Experience, baby. But ask the Colts how “the experience factor” worked out for them last year. Peyton Manning had won the Super Bowl four seasons prior and Drew Brees had never played in the big one so naturally, Indy would win. Only they didn’t. When the Patriots beat St. Louis in 2001, the Rams had the experience and they also walked out of the Superdome losers that night. The Bills had more Super Bowl experience than the Cowboys in 1992 and Dallas beat Buffalo 52-17 that year. Experience counts when it comes to making travel arraignments, acquiring enough tickets for family and friends, and dealing with the media. But when the ball is finally kicked off on Sunday, the only thing that matters is which team executes. Everything else – including previous experience – flies out the window.

2. Starks gives the Packers balance.
Over the past month, I’ve written several times on this blog about how running back James Starks has given the Packers’ offense balance, which he has. But when it comes right down to it, I’m not sure how much of an impact Starks will have for Green Bay on Sunday. You don’t attack the Steelers on the ground – you attack them through the air. The Packers’ strength offensively is their passing game and Mike McCarthy should want the ball in Aaron Rodgers’ hands and not Starks’. That’s not to say that Starks won’t be used because he will. But let’s not make him out to be the X-factor when everyone knows that the Steelers can be had through the air. I expect to see plenty of four-and-five receiver sets for the Packers and for them to get Pittsburgh in its nickel and dime sets early and often. There’s no reason to keep the Steelers’ base defense on the field when that’s how they can beat you. If/when the Packers build a lead in the second half, then I expect to see Starks.

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Five future stars of Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji (90) returns an interception for an 18-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter of their NFC Championship playoff game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on January 23, 2011. UPI /Mark Cowan

With the Super Bowl less than seven days away, the names Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews will continue to be talked about ad nauseam over the next week. So for one article, let’s focus on some of the other players in this year’s title game that are on their way to becoming future stars. You know, the “little guys” of the big game. (Actually, there’s nothing “little” about B.J. Raji so pardon my poor choice of words.)

1. Tramon Williams, CB, Packers
Williams has already arrived, so it’s kind of cheap to call him a “future star.” He made the Pro Bowl this year and received a contract extension a few months ago, so obviously the Packers and the rest of the league are well aware of how good he is. That said, it wasn’t until this year before he really emerged as one of the best corners in the league, so it’s fair to talk about his future prowess. He intercepted a career-high six passes and has three picks in the postseason alone. His two interceptions of Matt Ryan in the Divisional Round turned that game on its head and basically catapulted the Packers to an easy victory. There isn’t a more underrated matchup than his upcoming battle with Steelers’ receiver Mike Wallace in this year’s Super Bowl. (Assuming that Charles Woodson covers Hines Ward, that is.)

2. Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers
The second-year receiver out of Ole Miss has already made headlines this season with his deep-threat ability. Observers were worried about how the Steelers would cope after trading Santonio Holmes to the Jets last offseason, but Wallace has made everyone forget about the former Super Bowl MVP. He finished the regular season with 60 catches for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns, which included seven 100-yard games. He’s a rising star on an already stacked Steelers team and should be a player to keep an eye on for years to come.

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Packers dominate overmatched Falcons, advance to NFC Championship Game

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (R) shakes hands with wide receiver Greg Jennings (L) after defeating the Atlanta Falcons following their NFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Atlanta, January 15, 2011. REUTERS/Rich Addicks (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Here are six thoughts on the Packers’ 48-21 rout of the horrendous Falcons in the NFL Divisional Round.

1. Aaron Rodgers is a superstar.
That was like watching someone take candy from a baby. When I checked the stat sheet following the game and saw that Rodgers completed 31-of-36 pass attempts, I literally said out loud, “He had five incompletions?” I swear I only saw two of his passes hit the ground. He was surgical with his throws, averaging 10.2 yards per pass with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. Even when the Falcons accidentally pressured him, he evaded pass-rushers and often bought himself more time with his feet. There were at least three times when Atlanta defenders had him dead to rights and every time he shook free to find a wide-open receiver. If he plays that well next week, the Packers will be going to the Super Bowl.

2. Really? That was your defensive game plan, VanGorder?
Rodgers is great but Atlanta’s defense made him look like the freak-o love child of Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Johnny Unitas, Steve Young and Fran Tarkenton. That was one of the worst defensive efforts I’ve ever seen from a team that qualified for the postseason and I can’t say that it was all the players’ fault. During the first meeting between these two teams in November (a game Atlanta somehow won), Rodgers tore the Falcons’ defense to shreds when they only rushed three linemen. So what does defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder do on Saturday night? He only rushes three down linemen for most of the first half, of course. Rodgers is going to make plays – I get that. But you’re telling me that’s the best game plan that VanGorder could come up with? Rush three and sit back in zone? How pathetic. How unbelievably, undeniably pathetic. Where was the VanGorder defense that blitzed Drew Brees for four quarters and held him in check four weeks ago? Where was the defensive-minded Mike Smith when it was clear that Van Gorder was completely overmatched by Mike McCarthy? Guys like John Abraham and Stephen Nicolas failed to bring down Rodgers when they had clear shots at him. That’s not VanGorder’s fault. But my high school ran a better defense and all we did played was a 4-3 with a Cover 4. I won’t ever come to understand how VanGorder thought that game plan was best for slowing down Aaron bleeping Rodgers. Horrible, absolutely horrible.

3. Williams changed this game in a blink of an eye.
I don’t think the Packers were going to lose this game. Rodgers was too good and the Falcons were too overmatched for Green Bay to walk out of Atlanta without a victory. That said, Tramon Williams was the reason that this game wasn’t close. He was clearly beaten by Michael Jenkins on an end zone pass in the second quarter, but because Matt Ryan threw the pass like an 86-year-old grandma with arthritis, Williams was able to recover and make a great interception. Then he sealed the win for Green Bay right before half by baiting Ryan on a sideline route and taking his second pick of the quarter to the house for six. After that, the Falcons were done. You could see it in their eyes – they wanted to tap out. That interception was deflating and the Falcons weren’t willing to get off the mat. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: If only one Green Bay cornerback is heading to the Pro Bowl this year, it should be Tramon Williams. No offense to Charles Woodson because he’s great, but Williams was the Packers’ best defensive back this season.

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Five Questions: Packers vs. Falcons

Matchup: Packers (11-6) @ Falcons (13-3)
Kickoff: 8:00PM ET, Saturday

1. Can the Falcons deal with the Packers’ newfound offensive balance?
In the first game between these two teams, the Falcons did a nice job of forcing Aaron Rodgers to throw underneath. On the three plays that went for 30 yards or more, two of them happened because Atlanta defensive backs failed to wrap up Green Bay receivers. (The other play was a great flea-flicker play call by Mike McCarthy on a 3rd and 1.) But in that first meeting, the Falcons also didn’t have to game plan for running back James Starks, who shredded Philadelphia for 123 yards on 23 carries. Atlanta knew it didn’t have to worry about stopping the run and therefore could commit extra defenders into coverage. The Falcons won’t be able to do that again this time if Starks gets going, so they’ll have to deal with both him and Rodgers (one of the most effective quarterbacks in the league). The Packers definitely have the upper hand when it comes to showing the Falcons different looks because Starks didn’t play in the first game.

2. Can the Packers slow the Falcons’ running game?
Green Bay’s front seven needs to attack Atlanta’s running game like New Orleans did in Week 16. The Saints didn’t do anything special in that game to slow Michael Turner. They simply attacked the line of scrimmage and forcefully filled Turner’s running lanes. One thing the Falcons had success with in the first meeting with the Packers was running the ball downhill. They didn’t try to go north south with Green Bay; they attacked the outside linebacker position opposite Clay Matthews by moving their lineman downhill. Then fullback Ovie Mughelli did a great job of blocking the first defender in the hole and Turner was patient before heading up field. The Packers can’t allow the Falcons front five and Mughelli to dictate where they the play to go. They must attack and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

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