Friday, February 04, 2011

Super Sunday's Steelers vs. Packers Chess Match, Part Dos:: What We Might See When the Steelers Have the Ball

Bing, bang boom. That's what's gonna happen.

The Steelers will run the ball
well enough against the Packers 18th-ranked rush defense to control the ball long enough to keep Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense off the field.

We saw how well the Steelers' running game worked so effectively against the Jets, and the running game will help to grind out chunks of yardage, control the clock and maintain Time of Possession.

But this is not the Steelers of Bill Cower and Jerome Bettis. Yes, this current Steelers' offense runs the ball effectively. These Steelers often run the ball out of passing formations, however, and they are particularly effective out of bunch formation, when three wideouts are bunched to one side.

And, please note, the Packers haven't encountered wide receivers who
block like the Steelers' receivers. It's a Steelers' tradition, and no other team comes close.

As well as the Steelers can run the ball, when they need first downs, they pass.

Which brings us to ...

The Steelers' intermediate passing game will get first downs with maddening frequency.

The Packers'
Dom Capers, defensive coordinator, may assign a player to shadow Ben Roethlisberger. Good luck with that. Even Roethlisberger doesn't know what he's doing half the time. He loves to improvise. He can't help himself, he seems to love the drama, and he does have a knack for pulling plays out of his ass, whether scrambling or passing. And Hines Ward has a knack for finding open seams, catching passes and making the sticks.

Now, let's look at the Packers' defense for a moment. The Packers run variations of a base 3-4 defense with a lot of 2-4-5 formations devised to thwart horizontal offenses.

In the weak NFC, where the likes of the
Seattle Seahawks make the playoffs as a division champion for cryin' out loud, you see a lot of horizontal, West Coast offenses. The Packers don't worry too much about the run, which is why they often trot five defensive backs out there, with one of the DBs (often the aging Charles Woodson, who no longer has elite pass-coverage skills) playing close to the line to run-blitz or rush the passer, whichever happens.

What that means, essentially, is that they use Woodson
a lot near the line of scrimmage. At the age of 34, Woodson remains a great player, a Pro Bowler, but he is not the pass-coverage guy he used to be (although we may see him on Hines Ward off and on).

That's one reason why Woodson's up on the line of scrimmage so often. And he's been effective there, especially on blitzes. One problem with that, though: What if you run right at him? You run right over him, that's what. Most NFC teams don't even try and, if they do, they don't stay with it. The Steelers ran right at the Jets' corners, and they couldn't tackle Rashard Mendenhall. Keep in mind, too, that Woodson usually lines up on the side opposite Clay Matthews, the great young linebacker. So, by running right at Woodson, you neutralize Matthews to some extent, anyway. It's just that nobody's done it much.

Whatever. This defensive alignment has worked well for the Packers. Their front seven, however it happens to be configured from play to play, is generally effective. Their biggies up front clog the short middle and occupy the interior offensive line.

This, in turn, allows their linebackers to play to their strength, which is to move well laterally -- roam sideline-to-sideline -- or, more accurately in their case, each outside linebacker respectively covers his responsibilities on his particular side of the field.

That's why on the NFL Network's
Sound FX, you'd hear Clay Matthews screaming at Michael Vick, "You ain't bringing that to this side of the field." That's nice. But Matthews' responsibilities are limited -- to his side of the field. He can be contained (and, for what's worth, Michael Vick is left-handed; he wasn't going rolling out to that side of the field much anyway).

Clay Matthews is a great linebacker. He's terrific in horizontal pursuit and relentless in pass-rush situations (23-1/2 sacks in two seasons). He has the proverbial non-stop motor. He's intense, ferocious and a sure tackler. He's going to be a handful, but ... we wonder about one aspect of his game: How is his pass-coverage ability? ... When have you seen him cover anybody?

The Packers' other three linebackers are just average. They're just guys, never mind that
A.J. Hawk was a first-round draft choice. He's been a disappointment for the Pack, and has had many of his shortcomings covered by Clay Matthews on that left side of the defensive front.

Contrary to popular belief, the Steelers are not primarily a running team, nor are they a dink-and-dunk offense. The Steelers are a
vertical passing offense, and this is where the Steelers present a very bad matchup for the Packers' defense.

The Packers two corners beside Woodson are
Tramon Williams and Sam Shields. These young fellas have been terrific -- fast and rangy, with great make-up speed and excellent instincts (and hands). They actually help out the safeties more than the other way around, which is how it usually works in the NFL.

And that brings us to a glaring vulnerability in the Packers' defense, which is in the deep middle of the field. The Packers are slow and vulnerable in the middle, especially at safety, never mind that
Nick Collins made the Pro Bowl.

Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown keep Williams and Shields occupied -- and they will -- expect to see Roethlisberger go deep over the middle more than a few times, with tight end Heath Miller a target for several of those deep passes. This could be a major factor in the game.

One other thing to keep in mind: The Packers won a weak NFC North featuring the rebuilding Detroit Lions, the dysfunctional Minnesota Vikings quarterbacked by a decrepit Brett Favre, and the Chicago Bears, who looked good at times, but weren't really.

The Packers are not used to dealing with the intensity that the Steelers will bring. There's no way they can be. Nobody in the NFC matches it, and the only other NFL teams close to the Steelers in that regard are the Ravens and Jets.

The Steelers show that intensity and physicality
on offense as well as defense. Just ask the Jets about that first drive -- a 15-play, nine-minute first drive -- of the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers will beat up the Packers, out-drive the Packers, wear out the Packers, and simply outscore the Packers.

It'll happen: Bing, bang, boom.

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