Sure, Super Bowl XLV is a clash between two historically accomplished franchises: the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers. But it's also a matchup between teams who know how bring pressure with the pass rush, and two quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers) who know how to make defenses pay for bringing it.
Defensively, Pittsburgh enjoys the unparalleled luxury of having James Harrison, former Defensive Player of the Year, and fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley bookend their 3-4 scheme. Over the past three regular seasons, this pair, straight out of every quarterback's nightmare, has averaged a ridiculous combined sack total of 24. This season, Harrison finished third in the league with 14 quarterback hits to go along with his team-leading 10.5 sacks. (He's since recorded three more this postseason.)
As for the Packers, anyone who's watched Green Bay even just a little bit can tell you that Clay Matthews' 13.5 sacks this season (third in the league) really undersells what a disruptive, chaotic force he's been. Simply put, the dude is disgusting - a Defensive Player of the Year candidate if I've ever seen one. Fortunately for Roethlisberger and his offensive line, the Pack lacks a dynamic pass rusher on the opposite side - a Woodley to Matthews' Harrison.
Pass rushers for both teams have to be licking their chops at their individual matchups, too. For instance, Green Bay left tackle Chad Clifton gave up 8.5 sacks this season, the most in his ten-year tenure. What's more, rookie right tackle Bryan Baluga, the team's first-round pick from last year's draft, hasn't yet seen an assignment like Woodley, not in his short NFL career. (By contrast, Clifton has had to deal with Julius Peppers, Brian Orakpo, Cameron Wake, Jared Allen, John Abraham, Osi Umenyiora, and NFL sack leader DeMarcus Ware, so don't think I'm dumping on the old vet.)
This season, the Steelers' patchwork offensive line ranked 29th in the league in adjusted sack rate (sacks per pass adjusted for down, distance, and opponent). Of course, this was a ramshackle unit even before the season began, as they lost starting tackle Willie Colon to a torn Achilles in training camp, then lost Max Starks on the other side a few weeks later due to a neck injury. What's worse, rookie standout center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a high ankle sprain in last week's AFC Championship victory over the Jets, and while he's said he'll "definitely" be ready for the big game, you have to regard that with a little skepticism, since high ankle tweaks typically take about a month to heal. Pouncey has two weeks. That would leave Doug Legursky - a valuable utility depth guy for Pittsburgh, don't get me wrong - with the hellish task of lining up against B.J. Raji, Green Bay's behemoth nose tackle.
Suffice it to say, I predict the following equation to be in play:
ferocious pass rushers + dubious pass protection
= plenty of Roethlisberger and Rodgers running for their lives
Whoever handles this pressure better will likely lead his franchise to another championship. Both signal-callers are more than up to the task. Goodness knows they've had plenty of practice. Check out their sack statistics from the past few seasons:
|Sacks / game
|Sack Yards / game
Those are some astonishing totals, especially when you consider that "sack yards" fails to account for the opportunity cost of failed plays and drives. And yet it seems like for every one time a defender drags either quarterback to the ground in the backfield, he finds a receiver deep downfield or converts on third down with his legs. (In the last three seasons, Roethlisberger and Rodgers have averaged 8.38 rushing yards and 0.14 rushing touchdowns and 18.70 rushing yards and 0.28 rushing touchdowns per game, respectively, by far the most impressive numbers in the league for quarterbacks not named Michael Vick.)
In the coming weeks, sports broadcasters will fall in love with the "storied histories" of the Steelers and the Packers, and I suppose that makes for a compelling (albeit superficial) storyline. (Sidebar: If you've ever heard anyone use "storied" in any context besides sports history, feel free to astonish me in the comments.) But once the smoke has cleared and someone is holding that Lombardi trophy, the real narrative will be which quarterback - Ben Roethlisberger or Aaron Rodgers - was cooler under pressure.
And oh, will there be pressure.