Each week during the 2010 season, this blog attempted to analyze the Ravens, hopefully singling out Five Things We Learned, in either victory or defeat. This week, with the Steelers and Packers about to clash in the final game of the year, we're going to try something different. We'll try to give you a few things to look for that might help determine the outcome and enhance your enjoyment of the game, whether you're stuffing your face with chili, chips and guacamole, or trying to find the perfect prop bet that will boost your 401k. Let's break it down. - Kevin Van Valkenburg
1. Can Aaron Rodgers exploit Pittsburgh's cornerbacks?
In some respects, Rodgers represents everything the Ravens need to hope Joe Flacco becomes over the next few seasons. He has consistent mechanics, he sets up quickly in the pocket and he has a lightening-quick release. He frequently throws the ball in rhythm, and he's ready to make decisions right when he completes his drop, whether it's a 3-step drop, a 5-step drop, or a 7-step drop. He's also elusive enough in the pocket that he can make plays by "pressing the line of scrimmage." That means threatening to run on broken plays, forcing the defense to hesitate a bit, then exploiting that hesitation by delivering a laser throw in the middle of the field.
One of the reasons Pittsburgh made it to the Super Bowl is that, for the most part, Flacco and Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez can't make those plays, or at the very least, won't make them at this stage of their careers. Both Flacco and Sanchez play in offenses that put a premium on protecting the football, and in the playoffs, that allowed the Steelers to hide their weakness at cornerback. Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden and William Gay aren't great players in space, and that's not conjecture. Football Outsiders, one of the best sites on the web, has them ranked as the 38th (Taylor), 44th (McFadden) and 27th (Gay) most effective corners in the league in terms of how frequently they're targeted and exploited. The Steelers' ability to bring pressure in creative ways masks some of those issues, as does the super-human ability of safety Troy Polamalu. But Rodgers is patient enough that, with a little protection, he's going to be able to hit on some big plays. 2. How effective will Pittsburgh be without center Maurkice Pouncey?
Pouncey, the rookie center from Florida, has been one of the Steelers' best linemen this year, and despite expressing optimism publicly, the team announced he's going to miss the game after suffering a high-ankle sprain against the Jets. I actually think Pouncey's impact has been a little overstated. To hear Pittsburgh fans talk, he's been one of the best centers in the league this year, but really, he's just been the one consistent player on a pretty average offensive line. (The Steelers are 14th in the league in rushing.) Just like Pittsburgh's outstanding front seven is able to mask a weakness in their secondary, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is able to mask weaknesses in the Steelers' offensive line.
That said, the Packers have to exploit that match-p. Backup center Doug Legursky is decent player, but Packers interior linemen B.J. Raji and Cullen Jenkins made life miserable for the Chicago Bears in the NFC championship, and they should be able to control the line of scrimmage.
3. If the game is close, how big of an edge will the Steelers have because of their coach?
Packers coach Mike McCarthy is very good at coming up with a game plan, specifically at studying film to exploit another team's weaknesses. But as far as managing games, making adjustments, managing the clock and field position, rallying from behind and closing out opponents, he's dreadful.
Don't believe me? Just ask any Packers fan who has been driven to the brink of insanity the last several years by McCarthy's late-game bumbling. (Statistically, McCarthy has the lowest win percentage in the league among active coach in games decided by four points or less, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.)
Mike Tomlin, on the other hand, seems to specialize in those areas of the game. Some of that credit should be shared with Roethlisberger, as well as defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, but there is really no question what team should have the advantage in a close Super Bowl.
4. How will the two-week layoff improve Troy Polamalu's health?
Polamalu was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, but if you've watched the Steelers' last two playoff games closely, you probably noticed he hasn't been playing at close to that level because of an injury to his Achilles heel. He's had only seven tackles in two games and no big plays. The injury has clearly robbed Polamalu of some of his explosive ability, as well as his confidence as a tackler. (One of the more surprising aspects of the Ravens' second-half playoff collapse against the Steelers is that Polamalu played almost no role in it.) But with two weeks to rest, chances are good that he'll be the healthiest he's been this postseason.
Much like the way the Ravens allow Ed Reed to use his instincts and intelligence to make plays, even if it means he's occasionally out of position, the Steelers give Polamalu a tremendous amount of freedom prior to the snap to line up wherever he wants. That makes it hard for opposing quarterbacks to guess where he's going to be.
If Polamalu plays the way he did when he was healthy during the regular season, the Packers will struggle to run the ball, even more so than they would otherwise. Polamalu gets a lot of credit for the big plays he makes in the passing game, but no safety in the league is better around the line of scrimmage than he is.
5. Can the Packers keep Roethlisberger, at least for the most part, in the pocket?
When Rex Ryan slammed his headset to the ground near the end of the AFC championship game, it was certainly because he was feeling frustrated that the Jets' season was over. But I suspect it also had something to do with the specific play that the Steelers ran to get a first down and seal the game, a pass where Roethlisberger got outside the pocket and hit Antonio Brown on the run. It's a play that's almost impossible to defend, and Roethlisberger has been torturing defensive coaches like Ryan with it for years.
It's obvious that Roethlisberger creates problems for a defense because he can throw so well on the run. So you have to emphasize to your defensive linemen that if they lose contain on the edge, they're putting the defense in a terrible position. But I'll always remember something Trevor Pryce told me after the AFC championship game in 2008 when I asked him about Roethlisberger's mobility. He said he always felt like Roethlisberger was so good at freelancing that the Steelers didn't care a lot of the time if their offensive linemen couldn't block the pass rushers coming off the edge. In fact, Pryce believed, sometimes the Steelers wanted defensive ends to come free because they knew Roethlisberger was too big, strong, and elusive to bring down. He seemed to read defenses better when he was on the move.
The Packers, according to ESPN's Stats and Info blog, are one of the worst teams in the league at giving up big plays when the quarterback gets outside the pocket. (They rank 26th in the league at yards given up in those situations.) Roethlisberger could torment them all day, even if they're getting good pressure on him, by pulling his usual Houdini magic.