There are a number of storylines heading into Super Bowl XLV that will be explored in depth over the next two weeks, but here are my early impressions of what we can look forward to on Feb. 6.
Common theme for Super teams
1. Two brilliant defensive minds
Watching both conference championships with former Steelers coach Bill Cowher on Sunday led to a discussion about Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. There was a time when both men were on Cowher's staff, and there were game-planning meetings that took place with those two creative minds devising defenses together. Both men believe in a base 3-4 scheme with zone-blitz pressure as the core principle. It doesn't always mean sending five or six people at the quarterback, but it does mean confusing the offensive line and quarterback about which four guys are really coming and who is dropping into coverage.
There is no greater example of the innovative calls than on the play in which Capers sent a corner on the rush, dropped nose tackle B.J. Raji into coverage only to have the big lineman intercept a short pass and score a touchdown. In the Steelers' win, I saw defensive end Brett Keisel drop out and get his hand on a pass as well.
The interesting deal when these two defensive masterminds meet in Dallas will be how fast the quarterbacks realize what is happening, and what is a false impression of the defense in front of them. Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger see a lot of their own defenses in practice when the first-team defense meets the first-team offense. For the synchronization of these defenses, there was to be a lot of repetitions against the best offensive players. I have been to Steelers training camp enough to know that LeBeau is firing off zone dogs from the first summer practice.
2. Two resourceful QBs
Roethlisberger and Rodgers have a lot in common. They are both big, young passers that are athletic enough to trust their feet in critical situations as much as their strong arms. The bigger the game, the more likely they will take off and run for a first down or attempt to score in the red zone.
On Sunday, Rodgers ran seven times for 39 yards and a touchdown, while Roethlisberger ran 11 times for 21 yards and a score. Eighteen runs by quarterbacks in two championship games is not exactly like defending Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. Both defenses are going to have to be cognizant of the escape lanes in their defensive calls or these quarterbacks will go for a run.
Neither quarterback has "happy feet," but rather are calculated escape artists that would much rather break contain when pressure is collapsing a pocket and reset the play with a scramble-drill passing game. There will be great stress on the back seven defenders when the quarterbacks do move around because the integrity of the defense has been cracked and big plays could happen. Both quarterbacks are looking to attack vertically once they break contain and there will be a significant number of deep passes in this game.
Wait until you read the breakdown of the last time these two teams met for some clues about the Super Bowl, but I will tell you I expect well over 50 points in this game.
3. Run games have emerged
If it wasn't enough that there are two fine quarterbacks and some game-breaking receivers in the Super Bowl, there is a legitimate run game for both teams. The Packers' James Starks burst onto the scene in the playoffs, and in three postseason games touched the ball 78 times for 277 yards. He is a big back with a power burst and an ability to make something out of nothing. Even though the Bears knew Rodgers was the main cog in the offensive wheel, they still dropped a safety down into the box to stop the run and the Packers made them pay. If the Steelers do the same, the play-action pass will be there. And if the Steelers play the pass, Starks will get some yards on the ground.
The Steelers' running game was very impressive Sunday and Rashard Mendenhall will be a major problem for the Packers, who are not quite as good as the Steelers' defense. I expect Mendenhall to get at least 25 carries with 100 yards on the ground being a realistic goal. Remember, the Jets were the No. 3 run defense in the NFL, and the Steelers had health issues on the offensive line, but still pounded the run game.
4. Front-office maneuvers create depth
The Steelers have fewer men on injured reserve, but once again GM Kevin Colbert has built up the back end of his roster. Besides outstanding drafts, he did bring back former Steelers like Antwaan Randle El, Larry Foote and Byron Leftwich to add veteran depth. The Steelers know they can win without Roethlisberger, having gone 3-1 in his absence. The Packers got a decent performance from backup QB Matt Flynn when Rodgers was injured, but they can't have the same confidence the Steelers have in their backup quarterbacks.
5. A history lesson
These two teams met on Dec. 20, 2009, when both Rodgers and Roethlisberger were under center and at least 26 of the starters will be the same in two weeks in Dallas. Both teams came out throwing in that contest, which could be a clue as to how they will attack this time. By the time the first quarter was over, the Packers ran the ball three times to 12 passes and the Steelers had six runs and 12 passes. That frantic pace did not slow down in the second quarter, and by halftime there were 54 pass plays and just 15 runs.
The game ended up with 100 pass plays called, 1,011 total yards and 73 points. Roethlisberger was sacked five times, but he still managed to shrug off the hits to win the game. In that game, long pass plays included an 83-yard completion to Greg Jennings, 49 yards to Donald Driver, 60 yards to Mike Wallace, 54 yards to Hines Ward and a number of 20-plus yard plays.
6. Matchup issues
The injury to Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey has to be an issue with the way Raji has been playing. Raji rarely comes off the field and backup center Doug Legursky will have his hands full if Pouncey can't go. It can impact the inside run game, collapse the pocket and, most of all, the center-QB exchange. The Steelers are paper thin on the offensive line and the Packers are thin on the defensive line. An injury to either side could be devastating.