First of a six-part series
Here’s a look at a key matchup heading into the Super Bowl XLV showdown between the Packers and the Steelers next Sunday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Packers NT B.J. Raji vs. Steelers' interior offensive linemen
Following in the footsteps of Colts DE Dwight Freeney last year at this time, the injured player getting the most attention in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLV probably will be Steelers C Maurkice Pouncey, who left the Steelers’ AFC championship game victory over the Jets in the first quarter with a left ankle injury. The Steelers’ 2010 first-round draft pick did not participate in any of the team’s three practices last week and is considered a long shot to be able to play on Super Sunday.
A Pro Bowl selection in his first season with excellent explosiveness, aggressiveness, quickness and footwork, Pouncey’s presence could be sorely missed in what would have been a tough matchup for him by any means against Raji, a first-round draft pick last year who has blossomed into arguably the league’s best nose tackle in his second season.
At 6-2, 337 pounds, Raji has tremendous lower-body strength, excellent leverage and a big-time burst. He also has shown great durability this season, working overtime on the Packers’ injury-depleted D-line after a rookie campaign that was hindered significantly by a high ankle sprain suffered in the final preseason game. Raji led all NFL nose tackles this season with 6½ sacks (four in the last five games) and has performed admirably so far in the posteason, registering 10 tackles, a sack for nine yards in the playoff win over Atlanta, two pass breakups and, most notably, a critical 18-yard interception return for a TD in Green Bay’s NFC title game win over the Bears.
Raji became the first defensive lineman in franchise history to return an interception in the postseason for a TD and the first NFL D-lineman to do so since Jaguars DE Clyde Simmons, who scored on a 20-yard pick at Buffalo in December 1996.
If Pouncey remains sidelined, his replacement at center will be 6-1, 315-pound Doug Legursky, who must be considered a substantial downgrade from Pouncey, despite the fact he is usually technically sound (he did botch a pair of center exchanges vs. the Jets in place of Pouncey) and plays with good leverage. Legursky is undersized and has short arms, and Raji had his way with short-armed Bears OLG Chris Williams in the NFC title game.
Flanking the Steelers’ center will be hefty (6-3, 344) sixth-year veteran Chris Kemoeatu at left guard and second-year pro Ramon Foster (6-6, 325) at right guard. Both of them match up better size-wise with Raji than Legursky, especially Kemoeatu, a three-year starter who is the primary pulling guard for the Steelers and a key cog in the team’s Rashard Mendenhall-led ground game. There are moments when Kemoeatu dominates, but he lacks consistency and gets walked back too much in protection.
Foster has started since Week 10, having taken over for the ineffective Trai Essex. An undrafted free agent like Legursky, Foster has been extremely serviceable. But in terms of pure athleticism, Raji would appear to have a big edge.
Tuesday's matchup of the day: Packers' wide receivers vs. Steelers' cornerbacks
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