Super Bowl XLV preview

Posted Jan. 31, 2011 @ 2:11 p.m.
Posted By PFW staff

Updated Feb. 6, 2011 @ 6:09 p.m. ET


It's Titletown vs. Steel City, the latter vying for its seventh Super Bowl title.

Super Bowl XLV will appeal to fans of NFL history, as two of the league's more storied franchises face off in what should be a classic. It also might be scalper's heaven, as both cities' fans are among the more ardent and well-traveled when it comes to supporting their respective teams.

It also should be a terrific quarterback matchup. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, who has undergone his most difficult season off the field, leading to him being suspended for the season's first four games, will be going for his third Super Bowl victory, which would put him in the Tom Brady-Troy Aikman echelon of QBs. And on the other side, Aaron Rodgers — who has slain the ghost of Brett Favre in Green Bay, playing MVP-level football the past two seasons — will go for his first.

Don't forget the defenses, though. The Steelers' unit has been one of the more dominant of the past decade, run by 3-4 mastermind Dick LeBeau. And the Packers' defense, overlooked most of the season, came up big in the NFC title game when the offense struggled.

Super Bowl XLV has it all: history, superstar sizzle and impassioned fans. It all adds up to what should be a great matchup in the first big game held in the Dallas area.


When the Steelers have the ball

The Steelers are primarily a passing team. In Roethlisberger's 12 regular-season starts in 2010, the Steelers attempted to pass 55.4 percent of the time, and a pass-first Pittsburgh attack would not come as a surprise in Super Bowl XLV.

Roethlisberger, who threw for a team-record 503 yards against the Packers last season, has rare talents for the position. At 6-5 and 241 pounds, he is not easy to bring down, and he thrives when the play breaks down. Boasting exceptional arm strength, Roethlisberger can throw with power and accuracy on the run.

Roethlisberger has a bevy of capable targets. WR Hines Ward (7-126-0) and TE Heath Miller (7-118-0) were his leading receivers in the last meeting, and both remain key options in the passing game. WR Mike Wallace, who had a pair of TD receptions against the Packers in December '09, has outstanding speed and a better all-around game than he did when Green Bay last saw him. Rookie WRs Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown have developed nicely throughout the season.

The Packers' secondary is exceptional and should pose a far tougher test for the Steelers than it did a season ago. Pro Bowl CBs Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson are capable of authoring game-changing plays. Including the postseason, Williams has intercepted nine passes. The physical, savvy Woodson, still a playmaking force at age 34, has forced five fumbles. The Steelers also must be wary of FS Nick Collins, a ballhawk who runs like a cornerback, and rookie nickel CB Sam Shields, who had two interceptions and a forced fumble in the NFC title game.

In addition to strong pass coverage, the Packers are known for their blitzes. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers, like his counterpart, LeBeau, will dial up pressure with an eye on confusing and rattling the opposition. He is known for unveiling new looks; in the NFC title game, blitzes from Shields proved effective. And the Packers' final touchdown — ultimately the game-winner — came on a zone pressure where NT B.J. Raji dropped into coverage, intercepted a Caleb Hanie pass and returned it 18 yards for the score.

How the Steelers protect Roethlisberger will be one of the major story lines of this game. The Packers' best pass rusher is relentless LOLB Clay Matthews, who had two of Green Bay's five sacks of Roethlisberger in the last meeting. He'll provide a tough matchup for Steelers 35-year-old ORT Flozell Adams, but the Packers are likely to deploy Matthews in multiple ways.

The Steelers lost star rookie C Maurkice Pouncey to a left high ankle sprain early in the AFC championship game win over the Jets, and he was placed on injured reserve the day before the big game. As a result, the Steelers will start Doug Legursky in Pouncey's place. Legursky is a serviceable fill-in, but blocking the improving Raji would be a tall order for him.

The Steelers' ground game provided a major edge for Pittsburgh in the AFC title game. They came out running vs. the Jets, racking up 135 first-half yards en route to a 24-3 halftime lead, and they finished with twice as many rushes as pass attempts. It will be interesting to see if they try to again emphasize their running attack early in this game.

Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 121 yards and one TD on 27 carries vs. the Jets' No. 3-ranked run defense, figures to get the majority of the carries vs. Green Bay. He's a fast, physical back who also shows good patience. Mendenhall's top backup, 230-pound Isaac Redman, sees action in short-yardage situations.

The Packers' run defense was a weakness in the regular season, but it has been a strength in the playoffs. Green Bay allowed 4.7 yards per carry in the regular season but has surrendered just 3.6 yards per attempt in the postseason.


When the Packers have the ball

After completing 77.8 percent of his passes and registering a 6-0 TD-interception ratio in the playoff victories over the Eagles and Falcons, Rodgers completed only 56.7 percent of his passes against the Bears in the NFC championship game with zero TDs and two picks.

Rodgers started out like a house on fire on the first possession of the game, connecting early and often with WR Greg Jennings, who had his second consecutive 100-yard outing after being held to only one catch for eight yards in the Packers' first playoff game against the Eagles.

But with Bears Pro Bowl LBs Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs spearheading a strong effort, Green Bay was slowed down significantly in the second half, gaining only 104 yards.

The Steelers' excellent LB corps, led by Pro Bowl ROLB James Harrison, could cause similar problems for the Packers, both defending the run, which it does as well as any group of linebackers in the league, and rushing the passer, both inside and outside.

Where Pittsburgh could be vulnerable is the secondary, especially on the corners. RCB Ike Taylor has had a fine season and came up with a key forced fumble in the AFC championship game that led to a score, but LCB Bryant McFadden has battled an abdominal injury recently. William Gay is the top backup.

In a 37-36 shootout in Week 15 of the 2009 season, which was won by the Steelers, Rodgers threw for 383 yards and three TDs, as four different receivers had at least 71 yards receiving. A similar multifaceted attack could be on display on Super Sunday, with the Packers spreading out their receivers all over the field. Should the Steelers choose to focus on Jennings, who had five catches for 118 yards and an 83-yard TD for Green Bay's first score in the teams' last meeting, it could open up opportunities for James Jones, wily veteran Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson (12-146-1 the past two games; 4-71 vs. Pittsburgh in '09), among others.

The Packers must make sure the Steelers at least acknowledge their ground game, and it will be up to rookie RB James Starks to make that happen. Starks has come up with occasional big-play spurts, but he has gained just 2.98 yards per carry the past two games on 47 totes.

It's possible the elusive Rodgers could provide a bigger impact on the ground after rushing seven times for 39 yards in the NFC title game and running in a score for the second consecutive game.

It's worth noting that Pro Bowl SS Troy Polamalu was sidelined with an injury when the Packers scorched Pittsburgh's secondary in '09.

Bothered by an Achilles injury since Week 14, Polamalu has not made the kind of impact recently that he did during much of the regular season, but he remains the focal point of the Steelers' secondary.

Key matchups in the trenches will pit Harrison vs. Packers veteran OLT Chad Clifton, who has held his own against top competition in the past month, and LOLB LaMarr Woodley vs. Packers first-round rookie ORT Bryan Bulaga, who has been picked on a bit recently.


Special teams

In an area that is not considered a strength for either team, the Packers probably have a slight edge based on the steadily improving performance down the stretch by P Tim Masthay, who had an outstanding effort against the Bears in the NFC championship game, landing five of his eight punts inside the 20-yard line and limiting ace returner Devin Hester to only 16 yards on three punt returns (5.3 avg.).

For Pittsburgh, ex-Packer Jeremy Kapinos has been just OK punting the ball.

Steelers PK Shaun Suisham has been more accurate than Green Bay counterpart Mason Crosby this season, but unlike Jeff Reed, Suisham's predecessor in Pittsburgh who performed in two Super Bowls, Suisham is entering uncharted waters on pro football's biggest stage.

Neither team's return game features any game-breakers of note, and both teams' coverage units have had their share of costly breakdowns this season.

The Packers have been unable to come up with one dependable kickoff returner from among a large group of candidates, but Tramon Williams, who has made much more of a mark at cornerback, has come up with a few big punt returns.