How did the Packers deal with key injuries to their secondary? By leaning on a deep roster—and calling on all their experience playing shorthanded
This is an article from the Feb. 14, 2011 issue
The professor and the A student met in a corner of the locker room 90 minutes after Green Bay's Super Bowl XLV coronation. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers gave wounded 34-year-old cornerback Charles Woodson, who left the game late in the first half with a broken left collarbone, a light fist bump. "I am soooo happy for you," the beaming Capers said to the emotional leader of his defense. "I can't tell you how many things we had to eliminate from the game plan when you went down."
"It's O.K.," said Woodson, who finally had a championship ring after 13 NFL seasons. "We did what we did all year. We found a way."
It's possible that no team in Super Bowl history had suffered as much attrition by the time it got to the finish line as these Packers. Thirty-one players missed a total of 206 games due to injury during the season, and an NFC-high 15 players went on injured reserve. And just before halftime on Sunday, Capers saw three of his top four defensive backs go to the locker room: Woodson, the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year, with a broken collarbone; top nickel cornerback Sam Shields, with a bruised shoulder; and safety Nick Collins, who had returned an interception for a touchdown in the first quarter, with dehydration.
"You know how we got lucky?" said Capers after the game. "That long halftime show. It gave us a chance to diagnose the guys and find out who we'd have in the second half, and when we did, it allowed us to fix our calls and figure out what we were going to do. We ended up losing Charles, and Sam was really not right—he only played a little in the second half because he just couldn't tackle. Nick was fine when he got an IV. But we cut our call sheet in half, and we eliminated almost all our man coverages."
Woodson and Shields are good cover corners, but backups Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush are merely serviceable. So Green Bay went to more zone coverages with safety help. "Really, it was a microcosm of our season," Capers said. "We played Minnesota with three defensive linemen because of injuries. We played the Jets, and four days after he signed, [defensive tackle] Howard Green [was in for] 35 plays because of injuries. So we put Bush inside in Woodson's spot and Lee outside for Shields, and we just played."
The game came down to the final two minutes, with the Steelers starting at their 13-yard line, down 31--25. Two years ago, in Super Bowl XLIII, Ben Roethlisberger marched Pittsburgh 88 yards in a two-minute drill to beat the Cardinals. And in December 2009 against the Pack, he drove for scores at the end of each half. "I'm thinking, Oh, God—two minutes left, Ben's got the ball, here we go," said backup safety Charlie Peprah. "Seen this before."
With Bush, Lee and Peprah on the field, Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller (who was covered by Bush) for 15 yards, then found wide receiver Hines Ward (who beat Peprah) for five more. But then the Packers' coverage tightened, particularly with Lee working outside on wideout Antwaan Randle El. Lee is mainly a special-teamer; he'd played only a handful of snaps on defense all season. But entering Pittsburgh's last series, he'd been on the field for about 30 plays. "My whole life, I wanted to play in the Super Bowl," said Lee, "and when our guys went down, I did have one second where I ran out on the field and it was, WOOOO-ohhhh! But that was it. One second. Then I played. Football is my life. And on that last series, I just shut down Randle El. Just did my job."
Roethlisberger threw three times—not once in the direction of Randle El—and had three incompletions. Game over. Imagine you're a Green Bay fan, and you're told at the beginning of the year that with a title on the line, Roethlisberger would have two minutes to drive downfield against a secondary that included Lee, Peprah, Bush and young cornerback Tramon Williams. "We just never gave Ben a chance to get anything going," said Williams, an emerging star who, on the Steelers' last play, read Roethlisberger's throw up the left seam for the speedy Mike Wallace and batted the ball away. "That's confidence in the guys on the field and the scheme you're playing."
So often, Super Bowls are won by players at the bottom of the depth chart. David Tyree and the Velcro catch three years ago for the Giants. The special teams bandits who pulled off a surprise onside kick last year for the Saints. And now Lee and Bush saving Green Bay's secondary. The Packers' championship history runs deep—and this year, their roster did too.