Super Bowl Breakdowns: Can the Steelers run to glory?

| 6 years ago

Super Bowl Breakdowns: Can the Steelers run to glory?

Between 1960 and 1980, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers combined for 10 NFL titles, and they were built around classic running games.

It’s a statement about where the sport has gone that as the two meet in the Super Bowl here in 2011, the running game on both sides is little more than an afterthought.

The Packers can point to losing starting runner Ryan Grant for their struggles, but Pittsburgh has a more chronic root cause to their issues: an ailing offensive line. Green Bay didn’t have the league’s must suffocating run defense in the regular season, with injuries causing them to trail only the Buffalo Bills in yards per rush allowed at 4.7. But they have improved to rival the Steelers in the postseason, and have a legitimate shot at forcing Pittsburgh into being one-dimensional.

Replacing Pouncey: B.J. Raji vs. Doug Legursky

Maurkice Pouncey is being billed as a game-time decision, but he is currently in a hard cast, is being transported around on a cart, and is suffering from both a fracture and a high ankle sprain. The sensible money is on him not suiting up on Super Bowl Sunday, leaving Doug Legursky to handle the role in his stead. Legursky was far from perfect in pass protection against the Jets, but it was as a run blocker where he was badly exposed. He was consistently driven into the backfield by an admittedly strong Jets’ defensive front, and how he holds up against the Green Bay interior, in particular B.J. Raji, will be crucial.

Raji, despite his size has actually not been an impressive run-stopper in 2010, but instead has been at his best rushing the passer, taking advantage of his unusual quickness for a man of his dimensions. The big nose tackle graded well over the season for the Packers, but in terms of run-defending alone he was just our 45th-ranked defensive tackle, despite (or perhaps because of?) playing more snaps than all but three other defensive tackles.

Pittsburgh likes to pull their guards, especially from the left side, and at the very least Legursky needs to be able to anchor from the center to avoid blocking the path of Chris Kemoeatu as he pulls to either trap block or lead the runner through the hole. Against the Jets, Legursky was driven back, disrupting the run play on more than one occasion. Whether he can hold his ground against Raji will be an important part of the running dynamic.

Turning The Corner/Blocking The Perimeter

While Mike Wallace has become one of the league’s best deep-threat receivers, he’s also possibly the worst run blocker in the league at the position. This season he was our poorest graded run-blocking receiver, and the Steelers don’t make up for it elsewhere. Tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth are both in the lineup as much if not more for their blocking than they are because of their receiving threat, but both have been consistently poor blockers for a while (though Miller was excellent against the Jets). They often both line up on the same side of the line, giving the Steelers a heavy strong side of the line of scrimmage and in theory an advantage setting the edge on that side.

Unfortunately, it isn’t working out that way for the Black and Gold. Flozell Adams remains a reasonably strong run blocker, but on the other side Jonathan Scott has been very poor. If the Steelers are looking to run wide to the left, they could potentially have four extremely poor run blockers to that side of the ball, increasing the likelihood that one of the four will miss his block enough to blow up the run.

To counter those edge plays, the Packers aren’t exactly blessed with an abundance of elite players against the run, but they don’t have any massive liabilities either. Tramon Williams has had an excellent season in coverage, but was just average as a run defender this season, and Charles Woodson remained strong in that area – either player will be looking to take advantage of the blocking of Wallace on the edge.

While Clay Matthews has been a pass-rushing star this season, he was a little below average as a run defender — one of the reasons we weren’t backing him for Defensive Player of the Year. But his play against the run was not an issue during his fast start to the season, and he had a fine showing in the NFC Championship game. The Packers will be hoping that an extra week of healing will see a return to form. Matthews will likely find himself up against the blocking of Miller and Spaeth frequently over the course of the game, and needs to show he is capable of exploiting that.  The emergence of Desmond Bishop as an every-down linebacker has also been a huge help for Green Bay. Bishop has the kind of speed and athleticism that allows him shoot gaps and run sideline to sideline, cutting through traffic and making stops.

Rashard Mendenhall was n above-average running back (12th in our rankings as a pure rusher), and his pedestrian 4.0-yards-per-carry average in the regular season was a reflection of the O-line, not his talents.

The Deciding Factor

Nobody has suffered through more injuries than the Packers this season. The 15 players they placed on IR leads all NFC teams, and their problems on the D-line were bad enough to force two offensive linemen to see snaps on D this season (albeit in goal-line defensive packages) — but they have been better in the playoffs.

On the other hand, the Steelers have been getting worse, not better, on the offensive line, and aren’t being helped out by their skill players. Green Bay should be able to severely limit the Steelers running game, and force them to the air, but if BJ Raji can dominate his matchup with Legursky in the middle they could move past limiting, all the way to throttling.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

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