DALLAS — There’s every reason to believe the two teams left standing are the two best teams in the NFL, and just as much reason to think that little if anything separates them.
The Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers both have elite quarterbacks. They have the top two scoring defenses in the NFL and run the same 3-4 scheme that their defensive coordinators devised when they worked together in the early 1990s. The Steelers run the ball better, but the Packers are more talented at receiver.
The point spread for Super Bowl XLV is small — the Packers range from 1½- to 3-point favorites, depending on the oddsmaker — for good reason. So, as close as these teams are, it was something of a surprise when we talked to four trusted NFL scouts for their take on Sunday’s matchup and four predicted a Packers win even though the Steelers have the better record (14-4 to the Packers’ 13-6) and have won two Super Bowls in the previous five years.
“It’s hard to bet against (Steelers quarterback Ben) Roethlisberger because of the experience factor, but I think Green Bay is the better team,” one of the scouts said. “The offensive line in this game will be the difference, whether the Packers can protect or the Steelers can protect. You have two teams that play with a lot of (defensive blitz) pressure, and pressure causes turnovers. I think the Packers’ offensive line is better equipped to pick up blitzes than the Steelers’.”
“I think the Packers are better,” another scout said. “Once you get ’em in that dome environment (at Cowboys Stadium), I think they just crush ’em.”
This game features intriguing matchups across the board, beginning with the head coaches’ opposing approaches to managing an NFL team.
Pittsburgh’s 38-year-old Mike Tomlin is the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl and has a 43-21 record in four seasons with the Steelers. He’s a Tony Dungy protégé schooled in the Tampa-2 defensive scheme, but in a move illustrative of his delegating approach to leadership, when hired in 2007 he retained the 3-4 scheme the Steelers have used since 1992 and allows defensive guru Dick LeBeau to run his defense and call plays.
“Everybody that knows (Tomlin) talks about him being more of a motivator. Players love to play for the guy,” one scout said. “His personality, sometimes he’s like a position coach where he’s pulling for everybody and guys know he’s pulling for you, and you feel good playing for the guy.”
The Packers’ Mike McCarthy, on the other hand, is as hands-on as they come in his area of expertise and calls plays in his version of the West Coast offense. He’s set the mentality for the Packers in their stretch run this season, starting with proclaiming that the Packers were “nobody’s underdog” the week of their game at New England without starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But his greatest strength is his detailed involvement with the offense.
One scout talked of the little things McCarthy does, such as making it difficult for opposing defenses to deploy personnel and call plays on changes of possession by keeping his skill-position players bunched on the sideline as long as possible before sending in five for the first play.
“He understands defense and how to break down their communications,” the scout said. “A lot of these guys don’t understand that. It’s almost like he thinks like a defensive guy, the things he does to break it down — this is all pre-snap, this isn’t even talking about when they snap the ball. The things he has built into his system are almost like he was brought up by a defensive coach.
“You see him run that quick slant on the back side of a run, there’s no signal for it, it’s instinctual. They get a three-deep look (from the secondary) and eight-man front, they get a guy playing off the (receiver on the) back side of a run, they’ll throw the quick slant. It’s built in. You have to defend that, and that’s a problem. Everybody’s blocking run and all of a sudden it’s a quick slant and they’re getting 10 or 15 yards. The things he has built into the scheme causes problems.”
The game also features two top young quarterbacks who are playing as well as anyone in the NFL. The scouts were split on whether either team has the advantage — one said the Steelers because Ben Roethlisberger (age 28) has played in two Super Bowls, another said the Packers because Rodgers (27) is more athletic and accurate a thrower, and two called it a push.
What separates both from most other top quarterbacks in the league is the ability to make plays outside the pocket. Rodgers has become one of if not the best in the league at throwing while on the move, and he’s also a threat to run — he was the third-leading rusher (356 yards) among quarterbacks in the NFL, behind Philadelphia’s Michael Vick (676 yards) and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman (364 yards). Roethlisberger keeps plays alive more with brute strength at 240 pounds, shrugging off sacks and finding receivers downfield.
“(Rodgers) is trying to get first downs and score touchdowns, where Roethlisberger (scrambles) more out of a necessity because his offensive line (breaks down) at times,” said a scout who studied seven games of both teams. “You’ll see him run forward, look back and then run forward again. He’s thinking, ‘I’ve got to get rid of the ball,’ whereas Rodgers is more like, go. There were times you’d see things open up coverage wise, I think it was in the Minnesota game in Green Bay, it’s like the rush came and he just took off. He saw he had an open lane to get the first down.”
Another scout said: “Roethlisberger, he’s just a physical beast, he’s hard to bring down, even when you’ve got him he’s hard to bring down. You’ve seen this guy go down practically on the ground and still throw the ball and complete the ball. That’s the one thing (the Packers) will be working on, plastering the receivers when this guy breaks the pocket. All the coverages are out the window with that one.”
Two of the scouts pointed to Pittsburgh’s 39-26 loss to New England on Nov. 14 as a template to defeat the Steelers even though that game was 12 weeks ago. The Patriots won the battle at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball that day.
Their offensive line handled the Steelers’ blitzes and kept outside linebackers James Harrison (10½ sacks), one of the game’s most violent pass rushers, and LaMarr Woodley (9½ sacks), his effective complement, from being much of a factor. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady passed for 350 yards and three touchdowns that day.
More importantly, on defense, New England’s blitz package from its 3-4 scheme overwhelmed the Steelers’ weak link, its offensive line, and sacked Roethlisberger five times. The Patriots actually dominated more than the score suggests and led 29-10 with 8½ minutes to play.
The Packers’ offensive line isn’t as good as New England’s, and left tackle Chad Clifton has had some problems with power rushers this season, so he might need help against Harrison. The Packers probably will need Rodgers’ mobility to bail them out there a few times.
But New England didn’t have any pass rushers as good as the Packers’ Clay Matthews on the outside and Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji on the inside, yet sacked Roethlisberger five times with a creative blitz package. Compounding matters for the Steelers, their best offensive lineman, center Maurkice Pouncey, won’t play in the Super Bowl because of a high ankle sprain, which gives Raji a favorable matchup for pressing the pocket against backup Doug Legursky.
“When Roethlisberger had to make plays in that (New England) game, he got beat up,” a scout said. “Green Bay’s got a good advantage here in this game, the Steelers without Pouncey, they’re going to have figure out a way to help Legursky in the middle.”
Another scout said: “The Packers with Cullen Jenkins getting healthy probably have better individual pressure on defense in terms of the defensive line. They both have the outside linebacker, (but) there’s not a defensive linemen you can think of for the Steelers that you can think (is as good as) Raji and Cullen Jenkins. I just feel like there’s a big advantage for the defensive line of the Packers, and the offensive line. The quarterbacks are probably about even in terms of productivity, and usually games are won or lost in the trenches. That’s where (the Packers) have the edge, they have the edge in the line.”
The Steelers, though, have their advantages. Rashard Mendenhall (5-foot-10, 225 pounds), their fast and powerful halfback, runs behind an offensive line that, though deficient in pass protection, is big and physical when run blocking. Capers no doubt prefers playing his three oversized defensive linemen (Raji, Ryan Pickett and Howard Green) on early downs, but the Steelers can keep Capers out of that package and force him into nickel passing-down personnel by putting three receivers on the field and then running Mendenhall.
“If these (Steelers linemen) can get onto you, this guy (Mendenhall) is powerful to take it inside,” a scout said. “He can make a cut if he has to, he’s a very physical runner, feet run very close to the ground, lowers his shoulder. Very, very powerful guy. These linebackers are going to have to deal with his power. I saw some problems with tackling there (with Packers safety Charlie Peprah), and (safety Nick Collins) is OK. If things start busting up, I’d worry about the run coming through and these guys having to make plays.”
The Steelers also have an underrated tight end in Heath Miller (42 catches, 12.2-yard average) and one of the best emerging deep threats in the game in receiver Mike Wallace (21.0-yard average per catch).
In their secondary, the Steelers have an average group of cover cornerbacks, and their best one, Ike Taylor, probably will match up with the Packers’ Greg Jennings most of the time. But their secondary features one of the NFL’s impact defenders, Troy Polamalu, who was named the league’s defensive player of the year this week. Polamalu is one of the keys for disguising blitzes, because he lines up all over the field but with his speed and instincts can get anywhere by the time the ball is snapped — from dropping into deep coverage to blitzing to creating havoc around the line of scrimmage on runs, screens and short passes.
“He chases the ball,” a scout said. “Say you run this way and there’s a gap, he’s there (for the tackle), that’s his big thing. The Packers are a great red-zone screen team, (but) this is a hard team to screen against because of (Polamalu’s) speed.”
So, overall, the Packers are better on the defensive line, offensive line, receiver and secondary. The Steelers are better at linebacker, running back and tight end, and have an edge because they’ve played in the Super Bowl twice in the previous five years. Quarterback, the most important position, probably is a push. Games usually are won by the great players, and maybe it simply comes down to which quarterback has the better day or the ball last. Or whether Matthews, Raji and Jenkins outperform Harrison and Woodley. Or whether Jennings, Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams make more plays than Wallace and Polamalu.
“I think this game favors the Packers,” one of the scouts said. “There’s a big difference with the Packers playing in a dome than the Steelers playing in a dome. The Packers have more speed, and you’ll see that, whereas the Steelers are kind of like the Bears, they have that (natural-grass home) field, playing in those conditions, very similar programs. The thing that’s going to get the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense at the end of the day is the speed of the Green Bay Packers.”
E-mail Pete Dougherty at firstname.lastname@example.org.