Key matchups in Super Bowl XLV:
BJ Raji vs Doug Legursky (Not Maurkice Pouncey)
Pittsburgh’s rookie Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey was injured in their AFC Championship game against the Jets with what was called at the time a high ankle sprain. Later it was revealed that a bone fracture was part of the injury as well. Mike Tomlin is playing this close to the chest as any NFL coach must, but it’s unlikely that Pouncey will start, or that he will be effective if he does.
If he does not start Doug Legursky will take his place, earning his first start in the NFL. That’s right, his first start will be in Super Bowl XLV against a first round draft pick that has been building steam over the last couple months: Green Bay’s nose tackle BJ Raji. Raji is an expert at stuffing inside runs and collapsing pockets around quarterbacks. If the inexperienced Legursky has to face Raji he’ll likely need help from one of his guards on most plays, opening up blitzing lanes for Dom Caper’s linebackers.
Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson vs Hines Ward and Mike Wallace
Pittsburgh’s receivers are good, but Green Bay’s corners are better.
Charles Woodson was 2009’s defensive player of the year and has not fallen off in 2010. He’s well known for his physical play and is an excellent matchup against Hines Ward, who is known for his vicious run blocking. Expect to see flags for illegal contact on both of these veterans.
On the other side, Mike Wallace has had a 1,000 yard 10 touchdown season but is facing Tramon Williams who has been red-hot in the playoffs. Williams recorded six interceptions in the regular season, and three more in the Packers’ postseason drive. More importantly, two of these interceptions were big plays: a game ender against Philadelphia and a game changer against Atlanta.
Aaron Rodgers vs Troy Polamalu
This is perhaps the most anticipated of matchups between the two players that are the faces of their respective franchises. While Green Bay is on offense these two players will be reading each other for weaknesses and mistakes and communicating with their teammates to direct their squads.
Rodgers started the playoff brilliantly with six touchdown passes in the first two games with no interceptions, but did not fare as well against Chicago in the NFC Championship game where he threw no touchdowns and two picks. Chicago also has a top tier defense that is intimately familiar with both Rodgers and the Packers offense. Pittsburgh has a top tier defense but are not used to seeing the Packers in the regular season.
Troy Polamalu is the “quarterback” of his defense, calling coverages and adjustments to counter offenses. He has a solid but not spectacular playoff record, but his strength is in elevating his unit’s effectiveness more than in his own performance. As a crafty veteran Polamalu will be able to move his pass coverages in ways that Rodgers won’t expect and open the first time Super Bowler up to mistakes. Even if Polamalu’s hands aren’t involved, he’ll likely cause at least one interception in Sunday’s big game.
Pittsburgh Linebackers vs Green Bay Offensive Line
Pittsburgh’s linebacker corps of Woodley, Farrior, Timmons, and Harrison is monumental. Having so much talent concentrated in one part of the field is something that demands attention from offensive game planners.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau knows exactly how to move these players in ways that baffle the best of offensive lines, and Green Bay’s doesn’t even qualify for that. Chad Clifton, the veteran left tackle will likely do well against the blitzing James Harrison, but on the other side the inexperienced Brian Bulaga may have significant difficulties slowing down LaMarr Woodley.
Every team that faces Pittsburgh’s defense expects to see lots of blitzing, and with this matchup expect to see a fair amount of sacks as well, especially from the right side of the line.
Ben Roethlisberger vs Clay Matthews
This matchup may be a tough one to call. Ben Roethlisberger is a veteran quarterback with two Super Bowl rings who is known for using his size and strength to shake off would-be tacklers and make big plays. Clay Matthews is a second year pass rush specialist that led the Packers in sacks this season using his strength and speed to get around blockers.
There is little doubt that Matthews will get to Roethlisberger unless the Steelers regularly commit double teams to block him, which would be unlikely if Maurkice Pouncey doesn’t play. The question will be if the 6’3″ 240lb linebacker will be able to take down the 6’5″ 240lb quarterback. Defensive players are often asked to tackle smaller (even significantly smaller) players, but in this matchup the size and strength of the players is roughly even.
If Clay Matthews can consistently tackle Ben Roethlisberger when the opportunities arise, then the Packers may gain a defensive edge over the Steelers. If Roethlisberger finds a way to shed Matthews and get more time to throw the ball the Packers will be in as much trouble as the 2005 Seahawks or the 2008 Cardinals.