Here’s a look at a key matchup heading into the Super Bowl XLV showdown between the Packers and the Steelers Sunday at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall vs. Packers LB corps
The Packers’ run defense, which has allowed only 3.6 yards per carry in the postseason after allowing almost a full yard more in the regular season (4.7), must do a much better job handling Mendenhall than the Jets’ third-ranked run defense did in the AFC title game. The 5-10, 225-pound former first-round draft pick cranked out 121 yards and a one-yard TD on 27 carries against the Jets, despite the fact that Steelers rookie Pro Bowl C Maurkice Pouncey suffered a game-ending ankle injury on the contest’s first drive.
In the regular season, Mendenhall was the AFC’s fifth-leading rusher with 1,273 yards on 324 carries (3.9 ypc) and 13 TDs, which tied him for second in the league with New England’s BenJarvus Green-Ellis in rushing scores behind Houston’s Arian Foster (16). The third-year pro has seven rushing TDs in his last five games (counting the playoffs) and is the favorite to score the first TD in Super Bowl XLV at 5-1 odds, according to Lucky’s Race & Sports Book in Las Vegas.
A powerful runner who has become much more patient than he was a year ago, when he tried to bounce outside too much, Mendenhall has a wicked spin move that could cause big problems for Green Bay’s LB corps if it’s not careful. His 27 carries against the Jets were preceded by six games (counting Pittsburgh’s postseason opener vs. the Ravens) in which he averaged 17.6 carries per game. Mendenhall had three 100-yard rushing performances during the regular season and one 99-yard effort, but he did not make a major impact as a receiver out of the backfield (23 catches for 167 yards and zero TDs).
The Packers allowed only six rushing TDs during the regular season (third-best in the league) and have given up only 69.7 rushing yards per game in the postseason. Mendenhall must make sure he hangs on to the ball up against the likes of Green Bay LBs Clay Matthews (two forced fumbles during the regular season), Desmond Bishop (two forced fumbles during the regular season; one in the postseason) and Erik Walden (one in the postseason) or Frank Zombo (two in the regular season).
Bishop, who was Green Bay’s second-leading tackler during the regular season with 121 behind fellow ILB A.J. Hawk, is the Packers’ leading tackler in the postseason with 21. The unselfish Hawk, who had five games with double-digit tackles during the regular season, has done a solid job this season calling signals for the defense. Check the status of Walden, who left the NFC title game in the third quarter with an ankle injury. Even if Walden is able to suit up on Super Sunday, it’s quite possible he could end up sharing the load at right outside linebacker with Zombo, who figures to be feeling pretty frisky after missing the last six games (counting playoffs) with a knee injury.