In facing the Packers, these Steelers—like their teams of old—will make their case on defense
This is an article from the Jan. 31, 2011 issue
Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu sees the challenge posed by the Packers as complex and subtle. It extends beyond the big arm and nimble feet of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, beyond the speed and quickness of receiver Greg Jennings, beyond the sturdiness of running back James Starks. Winning Super Bowl XLV means not only shutting down a multifaceted attack but also outshining Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and the rest of the Green Bay D.
"Anytime you play teams with really awesome defenses, it's about outperforming their defense," Polamalu said on Sunday night, following Pittsburgh's 24--19 victory over the Jets in the AFC Championship Game. "We're obviously very familiar with their defense, given that we play pretty much the same thing [a 3--4], maybe the exact same calls and terminology as well. But anytime you play AFC North [style] ball against the Jets or when you play against the Ravens, it's all about outperforming their defense."
A few locker stalls down, fellow safety Ryan Clark offered a similar assessment of Green Bay. "When you play teams like that, you have to outplay their defense, and their defense is making a lot of plays," he said. "This is going to be a tough team."
In the divisional playoff against Baltimore, a forced third-quarter fumble by running back Ray Rice lit the Steelers' fuse. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco followed with a fumble and an interception, and Polamalu's theory of outplaying an opponent's defense held firm in a 31--24 win. Against the Jets the outcome turned on cornerback Ike Taylor's blitz just before halftime, in which he crashed into quarterback Mark Sanchez and dislodged the football, allowing cornerback William Gay to scoop it up and return it 19 yards for a touchdown. The play provided Pittsburgh with its final points and, ultimately, a large enough margin to win.
Taylor's blitz was a risky play, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will need similar moxie in trying to disrupt Rodgers. LeBeau is a master at having his defensive backs and linebackers feint at the line of scrimmage in what amounts to three-hour chess matches. On offense the Steelers will lean heavily on their running game, led by Rashard Mendenhall. Against New York's vaunted defense, Pittsburgh ran 43 times for 166 yards—Mendenhall had 121 on 27 carries—while Ben Roethlisberger attempted just 19 passes. A sustained ground attack should pay dividends for the entire team: By owning the time-of-possession battle, Pittsburgh would not only keep Rodgers on the sideline but also help give the Steelers' D fresh legs.
Clark joked that he wished the Super Bowl would be played on grass, in the snow, under sleet and rain, and that Rodgers might somehow miss the team bus to the stadium. Failing that, it will be two franchises steeped in history and gifted with speed. "We know we have a tough opponent in Green Bay," said receiver Hines Ward. "But they have a tough opponent as well."