It should come as no surprise to anyone to see the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl.
They may not have been the NFC’S trendy pick — that distinction would have gone to the Eagles, Falcons or Saints — but they’ve been a picture of consistency through the entire season and it seems a lot of people failed to notice.
This is as Packers team that did not trail by more than a touchdown all season. A Packers team that did not lose a single game by more than four points all season. A Packers team that barely skipped a beat without franchise signal-caller Aaron Rodgers under center.
Now Green Bay is (relatively) healthy and rolling behind the momentum of three straight road playoff wins.
That said, let’s take a position-by-position look at what Green Bay brings to the Super Bowl table.
Quarterback: Coming off three straight road playoff victories, Rodgers has become a hot commodity and is quickly ascending to ‘elite’ status in the NFL.
His performance in four career playoff games is impeccable; Rodgers has accounted for 13 total touchdowns to just four turnovers. His career QB rating in the playoffs is well over 115. More importantly? His record is 3-1, with the only blemish being an overtime playoff loss to the Kurt Warner-led Arizona Cardinals.
It’s clear Rodgers has learned from that defeat. It’s clear that he’s now a better quarterback. The ball is coming out of his hands quicker than ever, he’s fitting balls into windows that barely even exist and he’s evading the rush and moving fluidly in the pocket.
In short, Rodgers is doing literally every thing you could possibly want a quarterback to do.
Runningback: Here is where the Packers are going to have some issues.
When Ryan Grant went down for the season in week one, he left a massive void at tailback. Ryan was the Packers’ every-down, 1,200-yard, chain-moving back. He was dependable and versatile. In his absence, the Packers have employed a running-back-by-committee approach with Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and upstart James Starks.
The problem is that even combined, the trio doesn’t do what Grant could always be depended on for: getting the yard yardage. Kuhn is serviceable as a short-yardage and goal-line back, Starks has the speed and vision to run off-tackle, and Brandon Jackson has some power up the middle, but none of them have the burst and the drive that Grant has.
None of those backs can tear through a hole on second-and-9 and get into the secondary before being taken down for a 15-yard gain. The big-play ability just isn’t there, and against a swirling Steelers defense with some hard-hitting linebackers, the Packers have little to no chance of running consistently.
Wide receiver: Playmakers abound here for the green-and-gold. While Rodgers surely misses his big tight end in Jermichael Finley, he’s got a wealth of speed and play-making ability and the Packers go four deep with it.
Greg Jennings is the man the Steelers will need to key in on, though much easier said than done. Jennings can hurt a defense in a variety of ways — he’s just as likely to take a quick slant up the middle and to pay dirt as he is to torch a safety over the top. Look for him to be double-covered though much of Sunday’s action.
If Jennings is covered, Rodgers will likely turn to cagy veteran Donald Driver. While the 12-year pro can’t boast the speed that he once thrilled with, his hands are as sure as ever and he’s a fixture in third-down situations.
If Rodgers needs eight or nine yards on third down, you can bet he’s looking for Driver on a hook or a curl route.
In the slot will be James Jones. A quick receiver out of San Jose State, Jones knows just how to find seams on drag and post routes that drive defenses crazy. It’ll be up to free safety Ryan Clark to keep one eye on Jones at all times to ensure that those 10 or 15-yard gains don’t turn into 30 or 35-yard gains.
Last is the biggest of Green Bay’s wide receiver corps, the 6’3” 217-pound Jordy Nelson. Nelson really came into form late in the season and his size — coupled with the fact that he’ll likely be matched up on by linebackers or the nickel back — will give Rodgers a large target to throw at should his first couple reads break down. Think of Nelson like a large, sure-handed safety valve.
He could be one of the keys to the Packers’ offense should that Pittsburgh pass rush routinely flush Rodgers from the pocket.
Offensive line: What a difference a year makes. In 2009, the injury plagued Packers line could do nothing to keep quarterback Aaron Rodgers off his back. Rodgers was sacked a league-high 50 times in ‘09 — tied with the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger — compared to just 31 times in the 2009 season. A lot of that has to do with the improved health of the line, namely when it comes to left tackle Chad Clifton.
On the other end of the line is big-bodied Brian Baluga, who has fought through some early-season growing pains to really be dependable in the right tackle position.
The line will have its work cut out for it with the complex blitz packages gameplanned by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, so they’ll need to have their best game of the season to give Rodgers the time he needs to find those receivers.
Defensive line: Anchored by former Boston College standout B.J. Raji, who is not-so-quietly having the best season of his young career, this three-man line was part of a unit that was second in the league in sacks during the regular season with 48 and first in the playoffs with 10.
Raji’s ability to command a double team is what opens up the gaps for blitzes from the linebackers, but right end Cullen Jenkins is quite a pass rusher in his own right with seven sacks on the season.
It’s not just about blitzes, though. Far from it. This Packers front three is plenty capable of stopping the run, especially in the red zone. Green Bay was second in the NFL — behind you guessed it, Pittsburgh — with having allowed just six rushing touchdowns all season.
That staunch red zone defense will have to keep up that level of play this Sunday to force Roethlisberger into poor throws around the end zone.
Linebackers: This is where this Green Bay defense really starts to shine.
When Dom Capers first instituted a 3-4 defensive scheme in 2009, the Packers were a mess. They missed assignments, couldn’t plug gaps, and flat-out couldn’t stop anyone. That’s no longer the case. Led by defensive player of the year runner-up Clay Matthews, this linebackers quartet is as quick, strong and technically sound as any in the league.
It starts in the middle with A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop. The two run-pluggers not only lead the Packers in tackles, but combined for 3.5 sacks and six forced turnovers. When the middle of a defense is versatile enough to stop the run, rush the passer and drop back into coverage, and cover all those bases successfully, it opens up the outside linebackers to wreak havoc.
And that’s exactly what Clay Matthews did this season.
His 13.5 sacks were good for fourth in the NFL, but the opponents’ backfield wasn’t the only place he did his damage. Matthews is fast enough to drop back into coverage and get interceptions. He’s a hard hitter that’s going to force fumbles on players coming across the middle. Matthews needs to be accounted for literally every single time he’s on the field.
Secondary: Had you told me that a Green Bay Packers team without Al Harris or Atari Bigby — who combined for six picks and 13 passes defensed last season — was going to be just as dangerous this year as last year, I’d have laughed at you. And then told you to go watch the WNBA.
Well, then, it seems that the joke’s on me.
The team might not have forced as many interception’s as last year’s 38, but they clamped down on opposing wide receivers for just about every team they’ve played and the interceptions have come at the biggest possible moments. Tramon Williams has emerged as a premier corner and Nick Collins has quietly been one of the best safeties in the NFC this season.
With all the pressure forced by the Packers’ front seven, it allows the secondary to take more chances breaking on balls, as quarterbacks like Matt Ryan all too quickly to find out.
Kicking: Mason Crosby had a pretty average year in the kicking game, and was only 2-of-4 from beyond 50 yards, but he’s made big kicks for the Packers in the past and coach Mike McCarthy should feel comfortable enough with him in any pressure-kicking situation that may arise.
Tim Masthay is a fairly middle-of-the-road punter; the kind of player that’s not often going to pin a team inside their own five but a player that also isn’t going to net just 13 yards on a kick off the side of his foot. We’ll just say he’s no Matt Dodge.
– Jordan Rogowski