Mike McCarthy wasn't coy about his game plan in Dallas. The Packers' coach wanted to use three- and four-receiver sets to spread the Steelers' defense, then put the ball in the right hand of Aaron Rodgers and let the gunslinging quarterback do what he does best: attack through the air.
As good as the strategy sounded, McCarthy also knew it wasn't foolproof. Two days before Super Bowl XLV he stood in a corner of the indoor practice facility at Highland Park High and identified the one factor that could render his X's and O's pointless. "Watch the individual matchups, particularly on the edges of the line," McCarthy said. "We're going to have to win those battles, because there won't be much help for the guys out there."
Turns out the guys out there didn't need help. Rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga and 11th-year left tackle Chad Clifton stood up to Pittsburgh's relentless outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, giving Rodgers the time he needed. Pittsburgh finished with three sacks, all in the second half, but only one was in a third-down passing situation; the other two were on first down, including one time that Rodgers appeared to be particularly cautious with the ball on first-and-goal from the two. On the next play he hit wideout Greg Jennings for the decisive touchdown.
The line's performance was precisely what McCarthy envisioned the night before the game, when he boldly fitted his players for Super Bowl rings. The fifth-year coach is an aggressive play-caller who likes to attack vertically, and he knew if his blockers could protect Rodgers long enough—the Steelers led the league with 48 sacks—there would be opportunities downfield, even against a defense that gave up a league-low 35 completions of 20 yards or longer.
During the two weeks of practice before the game, the Packers' linemen stressed the need to trust their eyes and their preparation to counter Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau's creative zone blitzes. When Rodgers or center Scott Wells identified the four rushers at the line of scrimmage, the Green Bay blockers locked in on them. If another blitzer came, it would be on Rodgers to get rid of the ball. "I don't believe we got fooled once," Packers line coach James Campen said after the game. "Well, maybe once. But it was a nonfactor."
Campen played center for seven seasons in the NFL, the first two with the Saints and the last five, from 1989 through '93, with the Packers. His approach with his players is as straightforward as a quarterback sneak. He leaves nothing to chance. In practice he had defenders replicate the hand chop and spin options that Woodley uses, and he repeatedly noted how James Farrior loves to come hard on a diagonal inside blitz to create an opening on the edge for fellow inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons to loop into the backfield.
Just as important was Campen's effect on his unit's psyche. The Steelers' announcement last Friday that rookie center Maurkice Pouncey, nursing an ankle injury, would not play meant that Bulaga, at 21 years and 322 days, would be the youngest player to start a Super Bowl. That night Campen interrupted Bulaga's dinner with his parents by cellphone to ask him if he'd heard of Charlie Waters, Gene Upshaw, Richard Seymour and Jack Lambert, among others. "These are some of the greatest to play this game, and they're also some of the youngest to start in the Super Bowl," Campen said. "Now you're going to be the youngest. In the history of this game. Forty-five years! What do you think of being in the same class with them?"
"Let's do it," Bulaga answered.
The 6'5", 314-pound first-round pick out of Iowa played like he belonged. Matched primarily against Woodley, who had 35 sacks over the last three seasons, Bulaga mostly either stoned him or engaged him long enough for Rodgers to get off a pass. (Woodley had one sack.) "We accept the challenge and the responsibility," said Bulaga. "When you block for [number] 12, it's a full-time job, and you've got to give him as much time as he needs. Chad and I have been up for the challenge all year. I don't think we got help at all the whole game."
When big plays were needed, Rodgers had the time. He completed six passes of 20 yards or more—three of them in the fourth quarter as the Packers answered Pittsburgh's second-half rally. "As an offensive tackle, a left tackle especially, you always take pride in protecting your quarterback, protecting his blind side," Clifton said. "So you go into each and every drive with that in mind. You want to keep him upright, you want to keep him clean. Aaron's a special guy—he's the best quarterback in the league. We just wanted to do our part."