Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Packers vs. Steelers: Defense Week

The first thing is, despite the records of these two defenses and how spectacularly stingy they’ve been in giving up points (Pittsburgh was best in the NFL, allowing just 14.5 PPG; Green Bay trailed them by half a point), this could be closer to a shootout then everyone is predicting. The Packers have been the best team in the playoffs at just 17 points/game, while Pittsburgh allows 21.5, but these two defenses are built in the same mold. Pittsburgh has better safeties and a better LOLB, Green Bay has better corners and ILBs, but both these teams are built in the Pittsburgh style.

When Dom Capers was remaking the defense in summer 2009, the popular term for his efforts was that the Pack became Pittsburgh West. Capers served as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator in 1992-1994, when Dick LeBeau was first coming up with his fire-zone blitzes. The bottom line is that, for all of Capers’ creative blitzing and zone drops, the odds are that Ben Roethlisberger has seen most of the material. There aren’t many secrets here. Expect Big Ben and Rodgers to have an easier time with the defenses then they had last week.

The performance of Rashard Mendenhall against the heralded Jets defense last week-27 carries, 121 yards and a TD-would seem to be worrisome against the Packers’ middling ground game. However, the Packers’ run defense has actually improved in the playoffs, holding LeSean McCoy (Eagles), Michael Turner (Falcons) and Matt Forte (Bears) to a combined 155 yards on 39 carries, or 3.97 YPC. This represents a vast improvement over their per-carry average of 4.5 in the regular season.

Two more rushing items of note:

-In the case of Turner, the Packers (who were able to contain his inside rushes in both meetings) built a big lead on Atlanta and forced the Falcons to abandon the run. This may not be the greatest strategy against Roethlisberger, but Mendenhall typically rushes on inside zone plays of the type the Packers run all the time. Anchored by B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, the Packers’ run defense inside has been relatively stout all season. Against a relatively weak Pittsburgh interior that might lack Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, there’s no reason to think that the Packers will have serious trouble with Mendenhall inside.

-While Matt Forte didn’t have a spectacular rushing day, he did catch 10 passes (mostly check-downs) for ninety yards. LeSean McCoy also had four catches for 36 yards. Packers fans shouldn’t be worried about Mendenhall catching the ball (23 regular-season catches, 167 yards), but third-down back and former Viking Mewelde Moore may present problems for the Green bay LBs. Mendenhall does have three catches this postseason, for 45 yards.

Speaking of LBs, whether it’s Frank Zombo, Erik Walden or Robert Francois, the Steelers will attack the Packers’ LOLB and try to get TE Heath Miller matched up on them in coverage. Walden hasn’t had success rushing the passer since Week 17, so it’ll be up to Capers to manufacture pressure with Matthews. However, with an extra week of preparation, Capers should be able to move Matthews around more then he normally would.

The other part of that equation is that the Steelers are playing with their backups at left and right tackle. The guards aren’t that great, either. Cullen Jenkins and Raji should be able to get consistent pressure in the pocket on Big Ben against them and whatever center plays. Clay Matthews terrorized Roethlisberger last year, sacking him twice and forcing an apparent fumble on a would-be third sack (it was ruled an incompletion). Against backup tackles, he should be able to do the same this time.

The key for Packers rushers is to attack the ball first, then the QB. Roethlisberger is extremely good at getting the ball out even with defenders draped all over him. The Packers haven’t forced many fumbles by the QB this year, but their best course of attack might be to go for the fumble here.

The battle between Hines Ward and Charles Woodson in the slot should be a great one to watch. The Steelers will try to set up mismatches with their five-wide sets, as on the last third down that beat the Jets in the AFC Championship. The combination of Tramon Williams, Woodson and Sam Shields is extremely solid, but Jarrett Bush has been the same old Bush at dime back. It’s hard to forget Mike Wallace beating him in single coverage in the last meeting for a 67-yard TD on the first play of the game. If the Steelers spread the Packers out and Roethlisberger can extend the play in the pocket (as he is really, really good at doing), look out below.

I rag on Bush a lot, but it’s only fair to give him credit for an amazing job on special teams last week. Both he and Masthay essentially won the field-position battle for the Packers. While the Steelers don’t have a Devin Hester or an Eric Weems returning the ball, containing their returners will be a priority for the Packers nonetheless.

That’s about all for now; I’ll have some more matchups later on in the week, this time concerned more with the Packer offense. Cheers!