Green Bay Packers Jarrett Bush, left, and Tramon Williams watch as Pittsburgh Steelers kicker Jeff Reed kicks the game-winning extra point to end the game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Dec. 20, 2009. The Steelers won 37-36. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette
On Wednesday morning, Dom Capers cued up the film from last year’s 37-36 loss to Pittsburgh in Week 15 at Heinz Field, and it was enough to make just about everyone in the defensive meeting room sick.
Over and over, they watched themselves bounce off Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger as he turned would-be sacks into long completions. They relived the nightmare that was the last play of the game when, with three seconds left on third-and-10 from the Packers’ 19-yard line, receiver Mike Wallace ran a comeback route toward the pylon, and Roethlisberger darted the ball past dime defensive back Josh Bell for the winning touchdown as time expired. They saw the Steelers’ first play from scrimmage, when Wallace caught a 60-yard bomb for a touchdown over nickel back Jarrett Bush.
When it was over, Roethlisberger had thrown for 503 yards, the most any quarterback had ever piled up against the Packers.
“It was embarrassing,” Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett said after Wednesday’s film session. “To give up the kind of yards we gave up against Pittsburgh last year, we definitely are motivated. The tape wasn’t easy to watch. They did everything they pretty much wanted on us.”
Yet it’s entirely possible that little of what happened on that late December afternoon in 2009 will have much bearing when the two teams meeting again in Super Bowl XLV in 10 days.
Bell isn’t on the active roster. He was placed on season-ending injured reserve a week into training camp last summer. Bush, one of the special teams captains, rarely plays on defense anymore. Back then, the Packers were just 14 games into the transition to Capers’ 3-4 defense, and outside linebacker Clay Matthews was nowhere near as dominating as he’s been this season. The Packers didn’t have nickel cornerback Sam Shields and weren’t starting inside linebacker Desmond Bishop.
On the other side, the Steelers didn’t play with their biggest defensive star, safety Troy Polamalu, who missed a good chunk of the 2009 season because of a knee injury. The Steelers weren’t even a playoff team last season after finishing 9-7.
With one of the NFL’s biggest difference makers healthy and playing as well as ever – Polamalu was named to the All-Pro team earlier this week – things might not be as easy for Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 383 yards and three touchdowns of his own against Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s version of the 3-4 defense, which is almost identical to the defense run by Capers, a former Steelers’ defensive coordinator and longtime LeBeau friend.
“From year to year, from game to game, from week to week, teams kind of change up what they’re going to throw at you,” said Packers receiver Greg Jennings, who caught five passes for a team-high 118 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers last season. “In this case, Dick LeBeau isn’t going to change up his whole entire scheme. But he adds a player that we didn’t have out there competing against us last year in Polamalu, probably one of the better players on the field.”
How well the Packers account for Polamalu might be the single biggest factor in how successful they are offensively. In his only other career game against the Packers, Polamalu had a monster day. He had seven tackles (six solo) and recovered two fumbles, returning one of them 77 yards for a touchdown in a 2005 Steelers’ victory at Lambeau Field.
“He’s obviously the chief of that secondary, of that defense, really,” Jennings said. “Watching him on film, he does a lot of unique things that you don’t see a typical safety do. A lot of safeties aren’t given the amount of freedom that he has, and rightfully so. He deserves the freedom he has because he makes plays when the ball is snapped.”
Those expecting another shootout should consider that this Super Bowl features the top-two scoring defenses from the regular season. The Steelers allowed a league-low 14.5 points per game, while the Packers were right behind them at 15.0.
That’s a far cry from last season’s meeting, when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made an almost unheard-of decision to try an onside kick after his team took a 30-28 lead with 3:58 to play because he feared his defense couldn’t stop the Packers.
“We will keep that in mind that coach Tomlin made that call,” Packers special teams coach Shawn Slocum said. “And we will be prepared for that.”
If Capers’ troops are to replicate their regular-season success, then bringing down Roethlisberger will be critical. The Packers sacked the 6-foot-5, 241-pound quarterback five times in the 2009 game but blew several more opportunities, including one by Cullen Jenkins on the second-to-last play of the game. Jenkins tried to sack Roethlisberger by going high, but the quarterback spun away and threw incomplete to stop the clock.
“I counted, we had five sacks and a chance at five, a legitimate chance at five other sacks,” Capers said. “But it was just basically him being Ben, you know where we missed him or we hit him and (bounced) off of him. And a couple of times, he launched a ball up the field for big plays against us. We gave up by far the most big plays there than we did of any game last season.”