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Forensic societies could debate all day the order in which the NFL's active great quarterbacks should be placed. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers ... something like that. And there's room, too, for Philip Rivers or Matt Ryan in the discussion. But there is one thing that Roethlisberger and Rodgers do—and you'll see it on Sunday in Super Bowl XLV—that those first three quarterbacks hate: They leave the pocket. And they do it well.
In a combined 51 games this season Brady, Manning and Brees scrambled 71 times for a painful 53 yards. Those three define the term pocket passer. But the threat of the run from this year's Super Bowl quarterbacks makes the jobs of defensive coordinators Dom Capers of Green Bay and Dick LeBeau of Pittsburgh doubly difficult. Will they put a spy on Roethlisberger or Rodgers, who combined to rush 127 times for 620 drive-sustaining yards in the regular season and the playoffs? Or will they try to pen them in the pocket with disciplined rush lanes?
In this regard Roethlisberger seems the greater danger. Pittsburgh has two edge rushers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and the best blitzing safety in the game, Troy Polamalu, to try to blanket Rodgers; Green Bay has relentless outside 'backer Clay Matthews to chase down Roethlisberger but lacks the multiple rush threats of the Steelers. That will certainly test Capers's play-calling. After the Jets played coverage and beat Manning and Brady in the playoffs, they had to adapt to Roethlisberger's scrambling ability. And it wasn't just his 11 rushes that hurt the Jets; it was his throws on the run. On third-and-six with two minutes left, Roethlisberger rolled right, rolled some more, then threw a 14-yard strike into the breadbasket of his fourth option, Antonio Brown. Ball game. That's likely not a play that Manning or Brady would have made.
Before the 2004 draft Roethlisberger's coach at Miami (Ohio), the late Terry Hoeppner, prepared a tape for NFL teams called Great Escapes—highlights of Roethlisberger evading trouble and making plays. It was something Hoeppner thought his player did better than that year's other top QB prospects, Rivers and Eli Manning. When Manning was chosen first, Hoeppner, sitting with the Roethlisberger family at the draft in New York, tossed his phone in anger; that's how strongly he felt Roethlisberger would be the best of the group. There is little question that NFL scouts, who wondered if Roethlisberger would be as effective making plays running the ball and throwing on the run at the NFL level, were wrong and Hoeppner was right.
The Steelers love to run right. When the Saints scouted them before their Oct. 31 meeting, they were surprised to see that about eight of every 10 running plays, including those by Roethlisberger, were to the right of the center. Expect Capers to try to force Roethlisberger left, so he'd have to throw across his body if he wants to dump the ball off. Overall, a big part of this game will be how successful the Packers will be in keeping Roethlisberger from getting outside the pocket, where's he often at his most dangerous.
When the Packers have the ball, look for Rodgers to try to get rid of it quickly. He won't want to get hit by a defense that majors in pressure; after getting whacked by Julius Peppers at the start of the fourth quarter in the NFC title game, Rodgers was ineffective, though by then the Pack was mostly trying to bleed the clock. The Packers, however, excel at showing multiple looks. They're just as likely to play a two-fullback inverted wishbone as they are to spread the field and go five wide in no-huddle. Rodgers is the perfect man at the trigger for coach Mike McCarthy because he's got no ego. He won't care if he throws nine passes on Sunday or 49.
One last thing: There will be more points scored in this game than you think. The roof at Cowboys Stadium will be closed, and it will be a windless 72° inside. Passers will be able to get a great grip on the ball. Each team has fleet deep threats. Get your popcorn ready, as one infamous former Cowboy said. I like Roethlisberger to make a few more plays than Rodgers. Not many more, but enough.