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Super Bowl Preview: Blast from Halloween 2006

Posted by Chase Stuart on January 25, 2011

Stop me if you've heard this one. Mike Tomlin owns the league's fiercest run defense, a unit so difficult to penetrate that he forces opponents to become one dimensional. In a prime-time matchup, he faces a pass-heavy team with a star quarterback and a constantly shifting ground attack. Is this the perfect opponent for Tomlinon's troops, an offense that will have no choice but to be one dimensional? Or the kryptonite to his super defense, a team that will play to its strength knowing it can't possibly win without playing basketball with cleats? On October 30th, 2006, the answer was very clear:

[Tom Brady] started the game in the shotgun, with an empty backfield, and lined up in that five-wide set several times throughout the first half. Ten of New England's first 11 plays were passes... Tom Brady beat Minnesota's relentless rushing defense by simply throwing over it for 372 yards and touchdowns to four different receivers, and the Patriots pounded the Vikings 31-7 on Monday night to win their sixth straight regular-season road game... "The plan was to come out and put the ball in the air a little bit," Brady said, grinning. "The receivers made a lot of great plays, and it was a lot of fun, needless to say." ... Still firing well into the fourth quarter, Brady didn't let up -- going 29-of-43 to beat a defense that had been pretty decent against the pass, too.

Back then, Tomlin was a first-year defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, who sported the number one rush defense through six games. Minnesota ended the season first in the league in rushing yards allowed and yards per carry allowed, even narrowly edging out the 2010 Steelers in both of those categories. But despite whatever thoughts I have on defensive scheming, those Vikings were always "too good" against the run and not good enough against the pass. Could the 2010 Steelers suffer the same fate?

Against Baltimore and New York, the answer was "no." The Steelers, Ravens and Jets pride themselves on playing elite defense and power football, and Pittsburgh beat both of those teams at their own game in the 2010 playoffs. But what about the Packers? Green Bay has arguably the best combination of quarterback and receivers in the NFL. While Green Bay has some fascinating full house looks, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Packers adopt a very similar strategy to what Belichick and the Patriots did in 2006. Against Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu, it's one of the only strategies that works.

Over the past three seasons, the Steelers are 29-7, including the post-season, when both players start a game. In 2008, both stars were active for all 19 games as Pittsburgh went 15-4, losing to Philadelphia, the Giants, the Colts and the Titans. In 2009, they played just five games together, winning four, the exception being an 18-12 loss to the Bengals aided by a kickoff return touchdown. In 2010, they're 10-2, with the only losses coming to the Patriots and the Saints.

Half of those losses the past three seasons came against pass-heavy teams led by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Andy Reid. Those are the sort of teams Pittsburgh's always struggled with since the reign of Roethlisberger and Polamalu. When they won their first Super Bowl in '05, the Steelers went 13-3 with those two active, with two of those losses coming at the hands of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. In '04, Roethlisberger won every game he started, but his first loss of his career came in the AFC Championship Game against ... Tom Brady and New England.

Can Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy do to Pittsburgh what Belichick and Brady and Sean Payton and Drew Brees did earlier this season? Or what the '06 Patriots did to the '06 Vikings? I could see Green Bay putting the entire game in Rodgers' hands, letting him come out in shotgun with four receivers on most of the early plays. That would be playing to the Packers' strength and the Steelers' weakness. People like Brian Burke have been arguing that teams should pass more often as a general matter; such philosophy would apply a fortiori for the Packers in Super Bowl XLV. Greg Jennings is one of the best receivers in the league, and in the playoffs, his trio of complementary receivers have been impressive. Jordy Nelson and Donald Driver both have 12 catches and 140+ yards while James Jones caught two touchdowns. Having all four of them on the field will be a nightmare for the Steelers, and force them to substitute some of their elite linebackers for extra defensive backs.

On the other hand, there are some differences between the '06 Vikings and the '06 Steelers. The obvious one? Pittsburgh runs a 3-4 defense, while the Vikings ran a 4-3. The Steelers pass defense ranked 2nd in the league in net yards per attempt this season, while the '06 Vikings ranked 18th in that category. Still, Pittsburgh's only faced two pass-heavy, spread-oriented passing attacks, and those were the only two games Pittsburgh allowed 260+ passing yards. Football history teaches you to run to set up the pass, and to run to win. If Mike McCarthy throws all that out the window, Aaron Rodgers could be set up for one of the most memorable performances in Super Bowl history.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 25th, 2011 at 4:40 pm and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.