TURNING THE SCREWS ON THE BLACK AND GOLD

January 31, 2011

For the Packers, the key to beating Pittsburgh is to keep Ben Roethlisberger under wraps

The common refrain is that the Packers can win Super Bowl XLV because of Aaron Rodgers, their sensational quarterback who has thrown 10 touchdowns against just three interceptions in his four career playoff starts. Rodgers is at his best when he can spread the formation and identify the blitz—which Pittsburgh does as well as any team. According to Stats Inc., Rodgers completed 111 of 167 passes in blitz situations during the regular season for 11 touchdowns, five interceptions and a league-leading 104.5 rating. Normally opponents would back off when faced with that success rate, but Rodgers is more lethal when allowed to survey the field from the pocket. He had gone 118 consecutive postseason passes without an interception before Bears linebacker Lance Briggs ended the streak in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. (And that pass bounced off of receiver Donald Driver's left foot.) The late-season surge of rookie running back James Starks, who is averaging 87.7 yards a game in the postseason, has made Rodgers even more effective.

However, the primary reason the Packers can beat Pittsburgh is their defense. Last season the unit allowed at least 30 points in six games—including 51 in a playoff loss to Arizona—but this season it has held all but one opponent below that total while ranking second in points allowed per game (15.0). "Our goals [in 2010] were that we needed to do a better job in the red zone, tackling and scoring defense," coach Mike McCarthy said after the 21--14 victory in Chicago. "We've accomplished that so far, and that is the game we need to take to Dallas."

Much of the improvement stems from the players' increased comfort level with the scheme. Last season was their first under coordinator Dom Capers, and it took time to grasp the nuances of his 3--4 defense. There was too much thinking and not enough reacting.

This season, though, the Packers' defenders understand where they need to be and how they fit within the framework of Capers's scheme, allowing them to play faster and be more creative with their disguises. Green Bay also has benefitted from improved play in the secondary, where it's gotten younger and faster. Cornerback Tramon Williams, 27, has become a ball hawk in his first year as a full-time starter (nine interceptions, including three in the playoffs), and undrafted rookie Sam Shields has been better than anyone envisioned as the nickelback. Their development allows Charles Woodson to be a wild card. The veteran corner can slide into the slot, where he can either lock down a receiver or use his physicality as a blitzer and run defender.

Williams and Shields are particularly important in light of the last time these two teams played, a 37--36 Pittsburgh victory in December 2009. Ben Roethlisberger threw for 503 yards and three scores while completing 29 of 46 passes. He was lethal short and long, particularly to speedster Mike Wallace, who had two touchdown catches, one of 60 yards. Shields, in particular, has the speed to run with Wallace.

Bottom line: While most will focus on a Packers offense that is averaging 30.0 points a game in the postseason, the real key to beating the Steelers will be the defense. Even Rodgers would agree.

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (SHIELDS)BIG-GAMER Shields, a revelation in the secondary, has the speed to run with the Steelers' deep threats.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)