Super Bowl Breakdowns: The young gun vs. Blitzburgh
Super Bowl Breakdowns: The young gun vs. Blitzburgh
Aaron Rodgers knows a thing or two about patience.
First, on Draft Day in 2005, he sat in the green room for a couple of the longest hours of his life, slipping and slipping until the Packers decided they couldn’t pass on him at No. 24. Then, he sat for three years behind Brett Favre, watching countless quarterbacks around the league get their chances while he had to polish his clipboard.
But all of that has paid off for Rodgers. He took the starting job in 2008 poised and ready, and it’s his patience on the field that might stand out the most. He hangs in the pocket longer than most despite a sometimes shaky pass-blocking unit, and makes few mistakes.
With the strength of the Steelers’ run defense the Packers chances of controlling the game with their offense likely rests on the shoulders of Rodgers and his receivers. Can he and the Packers’ passing game make the crucial plays to take Green Bay to victory?
Aaron Rodgers: Know Your Opposition
Rodgers’ ability to avoid the big play will be crucial here, and preparation will be critical in that regard. Can he pick the zone blitz? Will he see who’s in the passing lanes on his hot reads? Is he aware of where Troy Polamalu is on every single snap? Rodgers’ work in the film room will be vital to preparing for this, but the instincts, poise and ability he has shown under pressure this season will be just as important. The Steelers have big play threats and ball hawks all over the field so his ball security in the pocket and when throwing the ball will be in sharp focus at all times.
Can the Packers handle pressure without blitzing?
Throughout the regular season, Rodgers did struggle when pressured. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes when pressure got to him, while throwing 6 interceptions and only 4 touchdowns. However, he did complete 64% of passes when blitzed, with a rating of 99.1. But Rodgers has improved his performance under pressure in the postseason — he’s completed close to 60% of his passes under pressure against the Bears, Falcons & Eagles and has only thrown one interception. The Steelers do like to bring the heat, but you wonder if tempering this and letting their prolific edge rushers win the one-on-one match ups (as you’d expect) would be the easiest way to make life harder for Rodgers.
Exploiting the linebackers
The Packers will look to target the Steelers’ inside linebackers in coverage, especially if the Steelers continue to deploy four linebackers against three- and four-wide sets). In the playoffs, 37 of 93 passes by Aaron Rodgers have gone between the numbers and under twenty yards, a high number. Conclusion? It’s going to be a busy Super Bowl Sunday for Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior picking up the Packers receivers over the middle. Considering how important that area is (it makes the Packers passing game tick), how the excellent downhill linebackers of the Steelers cope going uphill could have huge repercussions. Farrior graded ninth in our inside linebacker rankings in coverage, Timmons 16th (50 qualifying ILBs).
Woodley vs. Bulaga
While a lot of eyes will be on James Harrison, the big mismatch is on the other side of the line where Lamarr Woodley goes up against rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Bulaga yielded 12 sacks, five hits and 24 pressures in the regular season and Woodley registered nine sacks, seven hits and a team-leading 53 pressures. The numbers would indicate that this is a huge advantage in favor of Woodley. Breaking things down further, Bulaga has given up three-or-more total pressures on seven occasions this season while Woodley has recorded three or more total pressures himself in 14 of the Steelers 18 games.
However, Bulaga has saved his best for last. Against a dangerous Kroy Biermann, he allowed a sack but no hits or pressures, and shut down Israel Idonije in the NFC title game. He had his two best grades of the season the last two weeks, and that’s good news for Green Bay.
But the Steelers are one of the few teams in the league whose edge defenders combine exceptional pass rush with exceptional run defense. It won’t be easy for them to use their aggressive pass rushing against them with screens and draw plays, but it will be something they have to try down at some point to slow down the pass rush.
The Deciding Factor
At the end of the day this battle boils down to how much time the Packers can afford Rodgers (and how much extra time he can buy himself). If he has this time to throw the Packers have favorable matchups all over the field in the passing game. From two-wide sets, Greg Jennings and Donald Driver will be a handful (and then some) for Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden. Bring in James Jones and/or Jordy Nelson for three- and four-wide sets, and you expand on that advantage by exploiting William Gay and Anthony Madison.
However, if the Steelers are able to apply pressure through Harrison and Woodley the advantage swings towards Dick LeBeau and the Steelers. Being able to get bodies not only into the backfield but into passing lanes to disrupt and intercept throws will be key. Every year at some point, the Super Bowl boils down to composure — and there’s no reason to assume that won’t be the case again this year.
Let’s see how composed Rodgers and LeBeau are when it matters.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.