While Aaron Rodgers is attempting to shake off the tag of not being able to win the big game, Ben Roethlisberger is a quarterback with an altogether different story.
We all know of the legal problems he had this past off-season, leading ultimately to a suspension to begin the 2010 season. Thanks to the late start and unspectacular raw numbers, his stellar performance was overlooked — especially with Pittsburgh opening the season 3-1 without him.
Even the PFF crew failed to really pick up on the fact that he was our highest-graded quarterback over the final 12 games of the regular season.
With the Steelers’ offensive line going from patchwork to disaster area, the success of their offense rests ever more on the shoulders of a quarterback already looking to win his third Super Bowl.
Ben Roethlisberger: Read The Defense
Dom Capers likes to bring exotic blitzes, and the Steelers like to run a lot of three-wide receiver formations – their offensive formations are primarily either two tight end personnel packages or three-wide sets. Emmanuel Sanders has played 73 snaps over two postseason games so far (only 35 fewer than Hines Ward) as a third receiver. This actually plays into the hands of the Packers, because Charles Woodson moves inside to cover the slot when the Packers go to nickel sub-packages.
Playing inside and covering the slot allows him to be closer to the line of scrimmage and gives him a shorter route to the quarterback on blitzes, providing him more opportunities to be a factor in the game — and that is something Roethlisberger and the Steelers protection needs to be aware of. It will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh scales back their three-wide personnel package to keep Woodson out on the edge away from the ball.
Cover The Deep Ball
Mike Wallace is one of the league’s premier deep threats, averaging 21.0 yards per reception over the regular season and finishing as our eighth ranked pure receiver (all the more impressive since our system slightly favors possession type receivers). Meanwhile, seldom-used Antonio Brown has only caught four passes in the postseason, but for an average of 22.3, including the deep ball that broke the back of the Ravens. The Steelers have had success all year round going deep, with Big Ben posting a QB rating of 93.2 when throwing the ball more than 20 yards downfield. With Green Bay’s top three corners all allowing fewer than 13.5 yards per reception this season something has to give, and who wins the battle for the deep ball will be crucial.
Survive in The Trenches
Pittsburgh began the season with a suspect O-line, and they’ve been suffering serious setbacks through injury ever since. The latest sees Maurkice Pouncey with a serious ankle injury, and it has been widely reported that he is not going to make it to the field on Sunday. When he was initially injured in the previous game, we didn’t expect the downgrade that everybody else did, simply because over the season he was just average. But Doug Legursky displayed all new depths from his 51 snaps of action.
Legursky surrendered a sack and a pressure to a Jets’ front that is far from a pass-rush threat, but his bigger problems came from being consistently dominated in the run game, finding himself driven into the backfield all too often. The Green Bay D-line will provide a different test for Legursky (who also took responsibility for the botched snap that resulted in a safety). Not as strong against the run, they present a much tougher test rushing the passer, with even 330-pound-plus defensive tackle BJ Raji exceptionally agile and quick off the ball.
We have credited Raji with eight sacks this year (including the postseason), and he added a further 36 total pressures on the passer — one more than the Packers’ established interior pass-rushing presence, Cullen Jenkins. He also played more snaps than all but three other defensive tackles, remaining on the field for all of the Packers’ pass-rushing sub-packages. He is going to be a problem Legursky will need to deal with all day.
Legursky won’t be the only problem. Steeler tackles Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott are major liabilities in pass protection, although at least they are better than the options behind them. If the Steelers lose either one to injury they are down to utility “swing” lineman Trai Essex being played out on an island, and if they lose both (as has happened already in the playoffs) they could field an offensive line without a single recognized offensive tackle.
For Super Bowl trivia buffs, we’re asking you a question. Has that ever happened? The prospect of any of those potential offensive tackles trying to contain the pass rush of Clay Matthews brings the term “mismatch” rushing forward. Matthews may have struggled in the second half of the season after a ridiculous beginning to the year, but he was able to apply consistent pressure in the NFC Championship game, and he will be coming off a much-needed bye week.
The bottom line for Pittsburgh up front is that they don’t need to be fantastic on the O-line, but they need to limit the number of free rushers, and avoid the botched snaps that can kill a game in a single play. Roethlisberger is used to poor line play, and when his sack total is scaled up to a full season he trails only Jay Cutler. Unlike Cutler, he was able to play like an All-Pro in the face of that pressure — and that may be the biggest single reason the Steeler season is still alive. The Steelers like to run a lot of two tight-end sets, and they have backs that are used to pass protecting, so it will be up to offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to diagnose whether they need to start adding additional protection to their passing game.
The Deciding Factor
One player we haven’t yet mentioned is Steelers tight end Heath Miller. Miller may not be a huge factor in the game, even if the Steelers do like to use him off play action and on crossing routes over the middle, because Green Bay’s Desmond Bishop might be at his best in coverage, and is likely to make it a tough day for Miller.
The Steelers, though, love to use Miller in the red zone, even if his touchdown figures don’t back that up. When Pittsburgh gets close to the end zone, expect to see them test the Packer coverage on play action fakes with Miller and even Matt Spaeth leaking out into pass patterns.
The main question is, can the Steelers do that successfully and find their receivers while avoiding the big turnover? In a game that shapes up as being close, the killer mistake could be everything.