Five reasons Steelers will win XLV
No one knows how Aaron Rodgers will perform in his first Super Bowl
If Steelers commit to running the ball, they can wear down Packers front
There have been holes in the Packers protection in their six losses
DALLAS -- Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was outstanding during the early rounds of the 2005 playoffs. Through his first three games he threw for seven touchdowns with only one interception and had a passer rating of 95.3 or higher in each, including a 148.7 effort in a wild-card win at Cincinnati.
His confidence could not have been higher as he prepared for his first Super Bowl appearance. And though the Steelers defeated the Seahawks that Sunday at Ford Field, Roethlisberger played terribly. He completed just 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 22.6 rating. Even his rushing score was controversial, as he appeared to fumble the ball before crossing the goal line.
We bring this up as a means of saying, there's no way of knowing how someone will perform in his first Super Bowl. Roethlisberger was outstanding in his three outings preceding the game, then turned into a completely different player when the Vince Lombardi Trophy was in the building.
He redeemed himself three years later by completing 21 of 30 passes for 256 yards and the game-winning touchdown in a Super Bowl win over the Cardinals. However his first foray under the brightest of the bright lights could be a cautionary tale for the Packers and their sensational quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who in four career playoff starts has been nearly unstoppable, completing 69.6 percent of his passes for 1,213 yards and 10 scores with three picks. In three of the games his passer rating surpassed 121.0.
How will Rodgers perform Sunday against the Steelers in Cowboys Stadium? The inability to answer that question is among the reasons Pittsburgh could win the game. Five others include:
1. Experience. The Steelers have a combined 54 Super Bowl rings on their roster. The Packers have one -- and it belongs to running back John Kuhn, who earned it as a member of the Steelers' practice squad in 2005. Beyond him, cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Ryan Pickett are the only Packers who've played in a Super Bowl.
Experience is not a guarantee of success -- see the 2009 New Orleans Saints -- but it usually reduces the odds of a team suffering early-game jitters. Green Bay relies heavily on rookies like tackle Bryan Bulaga, cornerback Sam Shields and running back James Starks. Will the moment be too big for them?
2. Troy Polamalu. A bum knee prevented Polamalu from playing in the teams' game last season, when Rodgers threw for 383 yards and three scores with no interceptions in a 37-36 Green Bay loss. Accounting for Polamalu will be critical because he ranked second in the league with seven INTs and is the only member of the defense who is permitted to freelance within the scheme.
To understand Polamalu's significance to the defense, consider this: Last season Pittsburgh squandered fourth-quarter leads in five of its seven losses and gave up the decisive field goal to break a tie in the final minute of another game. This season: Polamalu, the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year, had a takeaway, a tackle or a forced fumble late in four games to preserve or set up a victory.
Packers practice-squad member Michael Greco, a 6-3, 224-pound rookie safety from Central Florida, played the role of Polamalu during practice this week.
3. Steelers run game. The Packers ranked 18th in the league against the run, allowing an average of 114.9 yards a game. They also allowed an average of 4.65 yards a rush, which was higher than all but four teams. The kicker: They were one of the league's least run against teams, facing just 24.7 carries a game. Only four teams faced fewer attempts.
If the Steelers are stubborn with the run they have the size and ability to wear down Green Bay's front. Detroit (41 rushes), Miami (39) and Atlanta (27) all stuck with their ground games in beating the Pack this year.
People have been doubting the Steelers' offensive line since injuries sidelined left tackle Willie Colon in June and right tackle Max Starks in November. Still, Pittsburgh finds a way to get it done. Rashard Mendenhall scored 13 touchdowns this season and rushed for 121 yards on 27 carries against the Jets' No. 3-ranked run defense in the AFC Championship Game.
Look for the Steelers to impose their will on the ground because they realize it's highly unlikely they'll win throwing the ball 46 times like they did in last season's win over the Packers. Mendenhall had just 38 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries in that game.
4. Roethlisberger's ability to extend plays. The Packers sacked him five times in last season's game, but lamented missing on five other opportunities. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been preaching the need to break down and wrap up when coming after Roethlisberger. He also conducted a refresher course last week on not biting on the pump fakes. Roethlisberger has one of the better fakes, and Capers showed video of defenders leaving their feet only to have the burly QB slip by.
Roethlisberger's ability to buy extra time will make it tough for the Packers to stay with Pittsburgh's speedy wideouts, particularly Mike Wallace, who had touchdown catches of 60 and 19 yards in the teams' previous meetings. Green Bay figures to match speedy rookie Sam Shields against Wallace in passing situations, but it's tough for any defender to cover if the quarterback can hold the ball for 5 or more seconds before releasing it.
5. LaMarr Woodley. Left tackle Chad Clifton did a solid job against outside linebacker James Harrison last season, but the key battle could be on the right side, where rookie Bryan Bulaga will have to handle Woodley in some one-on-one situations. Woodley is a fourth-year pro who has had at least one sack in each of his six career playoff games. At 6-2, 265 pounds, he is strong and quick and understands how to use leverage against bigger pass blockers like Bulaga, who is 6-5, 314.
The Packers have done a nice job protecting Rodgers this season, but there have been breakdowns. In their six losses they gave up 19 total sacks, with 18 coming in four of the defeats. No defense smells blood in the water better than the Steelers, who led the league in sacks.
Another thing to keep in mind, Rodgers has sustained two concussions this season, one of which forced him to sit out a game. Think the Steelers are unaware of that? Me neither.