To the untrained eye, the Steelers and Packers could almost be the same team. Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger are as athletic as any two quarterbacks this side of Michael Vick. When it comes to extending plays in the pocket and finding receivers after protections have broken down, or taking off up the field for positive yardage, there are few better than these two.
The Steelers are without starting OTs Willie Colon and Max Starks and C Maurkice Pouncey, and there were questions about the quality of the O-line even before they went down. Starting ORT Mark Tauscher for the Packers is through for the year, as well, and untested rookie Brian Bulaga has been thrown into the breach with mixed results.
B.J. Raji emerged during the second half of the season as one of the dominant nose tackles in the NFL and held the Packers' defensive front together as Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett struggled through nagging injuries. Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton has been one of the top nose tackles in the league for years but has really had to dominate vs. the run since the Steelers' best D-lineman, Aaron Smith, went down with a torn triceps. Smith has been declared out for the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, Pickett has been healthy now for a while, and Jenkins returned for the playoffs and has become more of a factor in each of Green Bay's three playoff games.
James Harrison has been an NFL Defensive MVP as a rush linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, and now Clay Matthews has won the 2010 PFW/PFWA Defensive Player of the Year award for the Packers. Each has become the key momentum changer for his respective team.
The Packers' Charles Woodson and the Steelers' Troy Polamalu have also each won NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards, and both are as much rover backs as they are a cornerback and safety, respectively — free to roam the field and play on instinct as much as within a scheme, and trusted by their coaches to gamble whenever they think the time is right.
When Dick LeBeau left Pittsburgh to become the head coach in Cincinnati, Dom Capers stepped in and became the defensive coordinator, succeeding to the point where he was eventually given the reins of the expansion Carolina Panthers. And when Capers left Pittsburgh, LeBeau returned and has overseen one of the most successful defenses in the NFL. In 2010 the Steelers were No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense, and the Packers were No. 2.
There is more, but I'll end the comparisons with Mike Tomlin and Mike McCarthy. Tomlin has had more success, more quickly, but McCarthy isn't far behind in victories, just one down in rings. Both are viewed as players' coaches who trust their assistants with the details but who have an ironclad grip on the big picture. Tomlin made his bones on the defensive side of the ball, while McCarthy is a West Coast offense guy, but they are mirror images in sideline demeanor and the way they are revered by their players.
So, are these teams two peas in a pod? According to Tomlin, not at all. The Steelers' head coach said of the Packers' defense, "I know it seems we're a lot alike, but when you start to break down film, we're really pretty different. We both play 3-4 defenses and we both like to blitz, but that's about as far as the similarities go."
What is very similar about these two defenses is that Woodson and Polamalu are the keys to most of their schemes. But where the similarity ends is almost everything Woodson does is scripted, whereas Polamalu makes a lot up on the fly. The Packers also know they may struggle if Matthews doesn't get to the quarterback, but the Steelers get almost as much pass rush from LaMarr Woodley as they do from Harrison, and James Farrior is a much more effective blitzer inside than anyone the Pack has.
On offense the Steelers are much stronger than the Packers running the football, and the Packers are much more dangerous through the air. As impressive as Mike Wallace's 20-yard-plus average per catch is, the Packers are more likely to hit long bombs, because they are much deeper at the wideout position.
So what will be the difference in Super Bowl XLV? With the Steelers' huge edge in Super Bowl experience, this one might just come down to leadership. Which Steelers will make sure their teammates don't become complacent or fail to rise to the moment because of their familiarity with the scene, and which Packers will make sure their teammates aren't overwhelmed by the moment?
McCarthy thinks Rodgers is ready for the challenge. The Packers' head coach says of his QB, "The one thing I really talked to him about last offseason was leadership, that he was already playing at his best but that he wasn't taking charge of the guys around him. I thought he made huge strides this year and really emerged as the leader of our club."
Woodson and Matthews are the other two Packers to watch, Matthews as much for leading by example with his play and Woodson as the elder statesman of the club. When Woodson speaks, every Packer listens.
For the Steelers, one might think Harrison, Polamalu or Roethlisberger would be the boss, but Polamalu tells a different story. "Hines Ward on offense and James Farrior on our side — they're the two guys everybody follows," Polamalu said. "James is our pregame talk guy; he's the guy who gets us ready before every game. He's so calm and such a steadying influence on all of us, and he makes as many plays as anyone on the field."
What is clear is that both teams have more than enough youngsters who are capable of great moments but are also young enough we should expect mistakes. And the final similarity in these two teams is that both have more than enough veteran leadership to overcome their youth and, in the case of the Packers, inexperience.
If this game comes down to a big play at the end, don't be surprised if it's Rodgers, Woodson, Ward or Farrior who delivers it.
Continue to follow our coverage of Super Bowl XLV this weekend through our real-time coverage of the game and our postgame recap and analyses.