Saturday, January 29, 2011

Packers vs. Steelers Defense Notes (With Videos!)

Before we get started on the full lineup of what’s going to happen against the Steelers when the Packers are on offense, I’d like you to watch this video:


This is Troy Polamalu, who is for my money the best defensive player in the game today. He covers like a cornerback, hits like an elephant and has short-area quickness that is totally unmatched. You can see it on that video; the Ravens are running a three-step drop, for crap’s sake. And Polamalu is still fast enough to sack Flacco. Oh, and did I mention his ridiculous ability to pick off the football?

The laws of physics have a blind spot. This guy violates the no-hair theorem and acts like a black hole. When the Packers scored 36 points against Pittsburgh last year, Polamalu was out with an injury. Aaron Rodgers will have to account for No. 43 on every single play.

Fortunately, the Steelers don’t have elite cornerbacks by any stretch. Bryant McFadden, Willam Gay and Ike Taylor are very beatable, as Rodgers found last year. McFadden in particular was torched by Greg Jennings when he was a Cardinal, in the Packers’ wild-card loss. The Packers will try to get James Jones in one-on-ones on the outside with the Steelers’ corners. If they try to work the deep middle of the field, though, look out. The Steelers have perfected Dick LeBeau’s zone-blitz scheme, and FS Ryan Clark forms an able complement to Polamalu.

WHAT
The front seven, if anything, is even better. OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley rival have no equal among 3-4 linebackers, and may be the top pair of pass-rushers in the NFL (their closest rivals are in Indianapolis). The Packers probably won’t see outstanding 3-4 end Justin Smith, whose torn tricep is still getting back to full strength, but NT Casey Hampton is an immovable object in run defense. He’s short, in his tenth season and doesn’t rush the passer, but he simply will not budge against the run. The Steelers allowed a stupidly low 62.8 rushing yards per regular-season game, mostly behind Hampton.

In other words, the Packers will assuredly be passing to set up the run. All of Mike McCarthy’s old standbys-the deep out, the run-pass option, the screens to Brandon Jackson, the delayed runs to Jackson out of the shotgun, the WR screen on the outside-we’ll see all of these, particularly early on. The key won’t be running the ball all over the Steelers with James Starks, but finding that run-pass balance that McCarthy has walked so well through this postseason. It’s all about keeping ‘em honest.

The matchup that will obviously be a key to this game is Bryan Bulaga, the Packers’ rookie RT who has improved greatly in recent weeks, against Woodley. McCarthy can help Bulaga with a certain extent by chipping Woodley with the TE or RB, but running the ball will be far more effective as a panacea to the pass-rush. If the Packers want to get running room up the middle, they might have to resort to old-school counter and trap plays.
The Steelers ranked second in total yards allowed during the regular season (276.8/game), 12th in passing yards (214.1/game) and sacked the quarterback forty-eight times, the most in the league. Opposing QBs had a passer rating of 73.1, lowest in the league besides the Packers. But for all that, I think that Aaron Rodgers can do what elite quarterbacks have been able to do to the Steelers during this 2010 season: he can pick apart their secondary. I foresee a Packer victory, 31-24.

(This might be better on Vimeo.)

I’d like to put in here one word about Big Ben Roethlisberger that didn’t make it into the last note. Roethlisberger possesses inhuman ability to extend the play and make the Steelers’ lousy O-line look better then it is. He can make all the throws, has great arm strength and is as clutch as they come. But he has been very prone, in seasons past, to the lousy interception and game-killing sack. He takes far too many hits as well. Big Ben threw merely five interceptions this year, but has 86 overall in just seven seasons. If he throws errant passes into the Packers’ opportunistic secondary, that could be the difference in this Super Bowl.

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