If you've paid any attention to Steelers detractors over the past three weeks, you've probably heard how the team got lucky to avoid a Patriots team that presents difficult match-ups for the defense. Of course, that supposed luck only goes so far. To win their seventh Super Bowl title, the Steelers are going to have to best a team that can stretch the defense with an elite quarterback. And one that has a more talented roster than the Patriots.
Most likely, you've heard Steelers fans say feel less confident about this game than they did against the Ravens and Jets. That makes sense. There are a few troubling indicators in recent history. The two games this season the Steelers played against what we could reasonably describe as elite quarterbacks (Tom Brady, Drew Brees) capable of spreading the field resulted in losses. The lone game played in a dome was a loss, even if that was more on an offense that hadn't yet found its stride. Aaron Rodgers is a top-tier quarterback with superb receivers and in Dallas they will be playing on a fast track, on which they typically do well.
Throw in the fact that Maurkice Pouncey either won't play or won't be anywhere near sufficient shape to be a net positive and that's another blow to your confidence. Oh, and Aaron Smith's remarkable and inspiring comeback in time for the Super Bowl didn't quite come to pass. I'm as much as I can to get the scary parts out of the way.
I had really gotten myself worked up over Pouncey's injury during the week, even though I had said that I thought Legursky's size and strength advantage would be a slight silver lining. Reading the latest entry in Football Outsider's excellent Word of Muth column helped to assuage a lot of those fears. While pass blocking is always going to be a challenge for the Steelers, especially against top pass rushers like Clay Matthews, the Steelers line actually matches up very well against the Packers when it comes to the running game. Muth suggests that there's a good chance the Steelers will be able to run on Green Bay as well as they did in the first half against the Jets in the AFC championship. Which is imperative. The Steelers showed they're capable of winning a shootout against the Packers last year, but that's still generally the game the Packers want to play.
The last thing Green Bay wants is a game where Pittsburgh can grind the clock and keep the pass happy offense off the field. Moreover, the Packers are generally an inconsistent team. At times, their attack can be outright devastating, but they often find ways to torpedo their own momentum. The NFC championship game is a handy example. While the media is quick to give the Steelers grief for the second they played against the Jets (not undeservedly so) the Packers basically got a pass for a lackadaisical effort in the second half in Chicago. Hell, if Caleb Hanie isn't dumb enough to not see B.J. Raji jump a slant pattern, things might have turned out differently. The point being is that you force Green Bay to be limited in their opportunities to score, even if the overall point total is low, and you've improved your chances at beating them. One huge advantage the Steelers have over the Packers is a knack for winning close games. In games decided by four points or fewer, the Packers were 1-6 this season.
Mike Wallace and Troy Polamalu have each had a fairly quiet postseason so far. The extra two weeks should mean that Troy's Achilles is that much closer to 100 percent. If the man himself is to be believed, it's the best it's felt in a while. That's a pretty sign, as the Packers showed considerable ability to chew through the Steelers secondary without Polamalu last year. Of course, the unit as a whole has improved since that time. The same, of course, could be said about Green Bay's defensive backfield, which got torched in the '09 game.
Everyone talks about how the dome turf benefits the Packers offense, though the Steelers speedy trio of receivers will no doubt benefit from it as well. Sam Shields is probably the Packers fastest corner, though I wouldn't expect the team to trust him to cover Mike Wallace and leave Charles Woodson responsible only for lining up against Hines Ward or Manny Sanders. William Gay going against Jordy Nelson will be key. Gay's had an impressive bounce back season after what was a terrible 2009 campaign as a starter. I'd love to see him have a huge game, not only cause he's a funny dude and it would of course help the Steelers win, but I think the bad rap that hands over him from his one bad season is a little unfair at this point.
Heath Miller is repeatedly been raised as a conceivable Super Bowl MVP if the Steelers win, as the Packers generally struggle in coverage against good pass receiving tight ends. To be honest, I don't really care much who the award goes to so long as the Steelers win, obviously. My dark horse, however, would be LaMarr Woodley. Rookie Bryan Bulaga, as Muth notes, is likely to struggle against Woodley's speed rush unless he gets help or wildly changes his technique. Of course, you focus more on shutting down Woodley and there comes James Harrison with a strip-sack. Rodgers is obviously very nimble in scrambling, so whatever pressure the Steelers do generate will have to succeed in bringing him down. He's probably even better than Mark Sanchez is this department and that's the one thing that Sanchez even does well.
The Packers have gotten more out of James Starks than the other rushers they've tried to use since Ryan Grant went down, but I doubt he'll be much of a factor unless the Steelers really have to sell out to defend the pass. That's a possibility of course, but aside from the stray draw play to keep the defense honest, I can't see the Packers trying to run much unless they're able to get a lead in the second half.
I don't know if it's just my mind succumbing to the Media Week mantra that this is a particularly even contest, but the teams' set of strengths and weaknesses play off each other in an intriguingly large number of ways. Things might not be "even" because no game is ever really that. It's a scenario where the A game of both teams is capable of beating anyone in the league and it's just a matter of who gets closest to that A game. Especially when both defenses come with similar approaches and backgrounds, even if their personnel have several shifting variables. I can see any number of outcomes favoring both sides. If one side wins in a blowout, it would probably be Green Bay. I don't really see that happening, but it's always a possibility with a few bad bounces. Should the game finish close, which I imagine it will, the Steelers are winning a majority of those scenarios.
A victory would mean tons of things in terms of legacy, history and all sorts of stuff you don't need me to explicate and I don't want to discuss unless a win actually comes. I will say, the run-up to the game meant barely stomaching the inevitable myriad of either poorly written or poorly conceived pieces trying to provocatively frame, pro or con, the Big Meaning of Ben Roethlisberger Being In The Super Bowl Post-Allegations. I know what it is to be a writer and to be forced to come up with an angle when you don't necessarily have one, but these were almost uniformly terrible. I can't recall one truly illuminating piece I read on the subject over the past two weeks. Even more frustrating was the tendency of the negative pieces to attempt a little feat of mental gymnastics, wherein they would handily ignore the vast crush of articles employing the same critical tone while depicting one halfway complimentary thing said about Roethlisberger as representative of some fawning consensus that doesn't actually exist.
That said, I have enjoyed the attention heaped on Brett Keisel. Or more specifically, Brett Keisel's beard. It's nice that a guy who's been a consistent and solid contributor for the entirety of his career can let his personality come out after years of relative obscurity.
Let's hope that's not all we have to celebrate about this trip.