On the defensive side, these teams exemplify the best of the 3-4 scheme. Their similarity is no surprise, since it evolved from the same set of people. Dom Capers was defensive coordinator for the Steelers from 1992-94 and developed the fire-zone defense both teams run so effectively today with Dick LeBeau (then defensive backs coach and today defensive coordinator). The intermixed DNA of these defenses couldn’t be greater, and the results speak for themselves. Green Bay and Pittsburgh are two of the best defenses in the league, with the Steelers holding just a slight edge in most categories:
- The Steelers were #1 in the NFL for scoring defense, allowing just 14.5 points per game. The Packers were #2 at 15 per game.
- In overall defense, Pittsburgh finished the season #2, while Green Bay was #5.
- In run defense, Pittsburgh was #1 allowing just 62.8 yards per game, while Green Bay was #18 during the regular season but has been much more stalwart in the playoffs – allowing just 69.7 yards per game.
- Pittsburgh led the league in sacks with 48. The Packers were #2 with 47.
- The Packers had 24 interceptions to 21 for the Steelers.
Offensively, the teams are different in perception but more similar statistically than most people realize. Just as the Steelers have the edge in most defensive categories, the Packers hold a slight edge in most offensive categories:
- In the regular season, the Packers ranked #10 in the NFL in points per game at 24.2, while the Steelers were #12 at 23.4.
- In total yard per game, the Packers were #9 in the NFL at 358.1, while the Steelers were #14 at 345.3 yards per game.
- The Packers passing game came in #5 in the league in the regular season at 257.8 yards per game, compared to the Steelers #14 ranking of 225.1 yards per game.
- As we know, the Packers struggled in the running game, coming in #24 in the NFL in the regular season at 100.4 yard per game (including Rodgers). The Steelers were #11 in rushing at 120.2 yards per game. But the Packers have improved in this category in the postseason, averaging 118.0 yards per game, just a half yard behind the Steelers 118.5.
In the last Packers-Steelers match-up on December 20, 2009, the Steelers beat the Packers 37-36 in a last-second completion from Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace. I expect a similar close game this time, though slightly lower scoring. However, the Packers are considerably improved from a year ago, and I think most of the key match-ups favor them:
- Packers Defensive Line vs. Steelers Offensive Line – Advantage: Packers. As everyone except Maurkice Pauncy expected, Maurkice Pauncy is not going to be playing on Sunday. The Steelers were already missing their two starting tackles, Max Starks and Willie Colon, both of whom are on injured reserve. This is a depleted group, and the Packers should be able to take advantage of this match-up in shutting down the run and getting pressure on Roethlisberger.
- Packers Offensive Line vs. Steelers Defensive Line – Advantage: Steelers. The Steelers led the league in sacks and stuffing the run. This ESPN article expertly breaks down the biggest vulnerability for the Packers: Bryan Bulaga vs. LaMarr Woodley. Bulaga has been improving, but he gave up 6 of the Packers' 12 one-on-one sacks this season. He needs to have a good game for the Packers to be successful on offense.
- Packers Receivers vs. Steelers Secondary – Advantage: Packers. This promises to be one of the areas the Packers can exploit on Sunday. With rushing yards expected to be hard to come by, the Packers will likely spread out the Steelers in 3, 4, and 5-receiver sets with Rodgers in the shotgun. This will push Troy Polamalu out of the box, where he usually likes to lurk. And force corners Bryant McFadden, Ike Taylor, and William Gay to run with our receivers. This has been a mismatch for every team we’ve faced this season, and it will be for the Steelers on Sunday as well.
- Packers Secondary vs. Steelers Receivers – Advantage: Packers. Mike Wallace makes me nervous with his speed, but Tramon Williams and Sam Shields can both run with him. Woodson will likely spy on Roethlisberger and cover tight end Heath Miller. If the Steelers go spread, Woodson may be able to get some surprise blitzes from the slot. If this game becomes a shoot-out, I think the Packers can stop them – Roethlisberger’s historic 500+ yard performance last year not withstanding.
Overall, I believe, while the Steelers are a great team, the match-ups favor the Packers. As long as they can avoid a big hit on Rodgers and can stay relatively balanced between passing and running, the Packers should have advantages that they can exploit. We’ll know soon enough. Go Pack Go!!!