2011 January : Packers Insider

Packers are a close-knit group

January 30, 2011 by  
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By Lori Nickel, Journal-Sentinel

~Dallas — Like the seats in coach and the buttons on your cell phone, the Packers like to keep it close. Real close.

Green Bay has kept itself within striking distance in every game this season, home and away, favored or underdog. They’ve never found themselves in a deep hole, never trailing by more than seven points.

It’s one of the reasons the Packers remained confident, whether they were 8-6 on Dec. 20 or on their current five-game winning streak heading in to Super Bowl XLV.

“You could pretty much look back at every game we lost this season and say we had a chance to win,” said fullback Korey Hall.

The Packers have spent an average of 35:12 minutes per game in the lead compared with an average of 9:44 per game trailing.

“That’s all credit to the defense,” said Green Bay receiver James Jones. “The defense does a great job in the red zone holding them to field goals. Even when the offense is struggling and we’ve had games with 14 points, we’ve never been behind by more than seven. That’s all to the credit of the defense. They’re doing a great job.”

The Packers’ stout defense is a big reason why Green Bay has never trailed by more than seven points this season.

Green Bay never trailed at all in seven of its 19 games: Buffalo, the first Detroit matchup, at N.Y. Jets, Dallas, N.Y. Giants and the two close playoff games, at Philadelphia in the wild-card playoff game and at Chicago in the NFC Championship Game.

“It says we’re consistent. It says we’re going to play a certain style of ball,” said defensive end Ryan Pickett. “It says we play pretty much the same every week.”

Green Bay only trailed by seven points twice, in both games at Atlanta. In the regular-season game, the Packers trailed, 10-3, and, 17-10. In the divisional playoff game, they trailed, 7-0, and, 14-7.

Green Bay became the first team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to never trail by more than seven points in a game at any point in a season. The Minnesota Vikings were the last team to keep their games so close, in 1969.

“We’re making plays at the end of the game,” said Jones. “In 2008 we weren’t making those at the end of the game when it really counted. This year we’re making the plays on offense, and the defense is really making the stops at the end of the game and that’s half the battle right there.”

Green Bay trailed by six points against San Francisco, 6-0, a game the Packers went on to win big.

They’ve never trailed by five points all year.

They trailed by four points in four games: at Chicago, against Miami, at Detroit and at New England – all losses.

But the Packers believe those close games served a lesson as well. A vital one.

Remember 2008? Green Bay lost six games, all of them close, by either four or three points. The Packers finished 6-10.

This year, there were also plenty of close losses – none was by more than four points. That’s remarkable because the average margin of defeat in NFL games this season was 11.75 points (10.64 for playoff teams). The Packers are the only six-loss team in NFL history to lose all six games by four points or fewer.

“It means we had solid game planning,” said center Scott Wells. “And they way we look at it, the games we lost, we lost. It wasn’t that we were beaten.”

The Packers also used some of those close losses to help them win other games, especially two close playoff games at Philadelphia and Chicago

“You can get used to losing. 6-10 is, oh man, we’re going to lose by three again,” said receiver Jordy Nelson. “I wonder now if it is being in the situation more and getting more comfortable in the close games. Now we’re in close games and think, at Philly, the defense is going to do it. Chicago? The defense is going to win it.”

Green Bay’s six losses this season were by a combined 20 points, a 3.3 average margin of defeat that was the lowest in the NFL.

The 7-3 loss at Detroit was humiliating for the Packers.

“That really put us in a spot where we had to scratch and claw to get to the playoffs,” said Hall. “That was a reality check for us this season. Games like that, you kind of have to re-evaluate where you’re at.”

After the Detroit defeat and losing Aaron Rodgers to a concussion, Green Bay played well at New England, with backup Matt Flynn, in a loss. Though the Packers were 8-6 at the time and had to win the last two games just to get in the playoffs, they remained extremely confident.

“You get in enough of those close games you start figuring out a way to win and you start being a little extra detailed at the end of the game,” said Hall. “There’s definitely something to be said for having a locker room full of guys who know how to win and want to win and when we go to practice, we practice like winners. It’s a habit.”

The Packers say this kind of year allows them not to worry should they happen to fall behind by a greater margin.

“We overcame a lot of adversity this year. I don’t think 14 points or going down by 21 would shake this team up,” said Jones. “We’d just keep on playing.”

“Our offense can put up points fast, and our defense can take the ball away,” said Pickett. “We don’t ever want to be in that position. But if we did, we got the right personnel to move the ball.”

CUTTING IT CLOSE

• The Packers are the only six-loss team in NFL history to lose all six games by four points or fewer.

• No NFL team had a five-loss season with all the losses by four points or fewer. The only other team that had four losses all by four or fewest points was the 1987 Washington Redskins (11-4), who went on to win the Super Bowl.

• The Packers’ average margin of defeat was the lowest by a playoff qualifier since San Diego recorded a 3.0 margin in its two losses in 2006.

Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Full story HERE

Green Bay Packers playmaker B.J. Raji – and his dance – set to enter national spotlight

January 30, 2011 by  
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By Mike Vandermause, Green Bay Press-Gazette

~Is there anything B.J. Raji can’t do for the Green Bay Packers?

The 337-pound nose tackle is a run-stuffing behemoth on the No. 2-ranked scoring defense in the NFL. He has nimble feet that allow him to make plays away from the line of scrimmage. He can rush the passer and has the third-leading sack total on the team to prove it.

Green Bay Packers' B.J. Raji returns an interception into the end zone for a touchdown against Chicago during the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game Sunday, January, 23, 2011, at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.

Lately Raji has been used as a blocker on offense in goal-line situations. He served as the perfect decoy against the Chicago Bears in the NFC championship game when he plunged up the middle and fooled the Bears defenders long enough to free up quarterback Aaron Rodgers to score on a bootleg run.

Raji also shocked the world against the Bears when he dropped back in coverage in the fourth quarter and intercepted a Caleb Hanie pass and returned it for a touchdown that proved to be the difference in the Packers’ 21-14 victory.

If there’s one thing Raji hasn’t been proficient at this season, it’s dancing.

Raji’s celebration dance after scoring that decisive touchdown was a little short on style points, but it has landed him in the national spotlight. You Tube videos, including one produced by University of Wisconsin-Green Bay staff members, are all the rage with fans attempting to dance “The Raji.”

“I didn’t know it would be such a big hit,” said Raji. “It just goes to show the support that you get from the Green Bay fans. It’s great to be part of it.”

If Raji isn’t careful when he takes the national stage this week in preparation for the Super Bowl, his dance sensation might sweep the nation much like the Bears’ Super Bowl shuffle did in the 1980s. Big plays in big games tend to attract a lot of attention, as Raji’s interception and touchdown did, and a corny celebration only adds to the attraction.

Some of his teammates rolled their eyes when discussing Raji’s dancing skills. But they love what he brings to the defense.

“He’s real explosive,” said defensive end Cullen Jenkins. “You look at him and he’s not the tallest (and he doesn’t have) the longest arms, but what he does have is a lot of power.

Raji and Clay Matthews (2009 first round draft picks) appear to be the best 1st round draft combo since the daily double the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit with Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the 1995 draft that led to multiple playoff appearances and top-ranked defenses for Monte Kiffen's defense.

“And he’s so quick. Anytime he makes up his mind about where he wants to go, there’s not too many people that can stop him and get in his way.”

Those are the skills General Manager Ted Thompson had in mind when he drafted Raji with the No. 9 overall pick in 2009. The Packers needed a force in the middle of their new 3-4 defense, and Raji has filled the bill perfectly.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a noted 3-4 expert, has called Raji the key to the Packers’ defensive success.

Raji takes such compliments in stride. “I appreciate that comment, but we have a lot of great players on this defense,” he said.

He has fielded a few more text messages and telephone calls this past week after the Bears game, but nothing else has changed.

“I don’t anticipate anything going to my head,” Raji said. “That’s not the type of person I am.”

Normally nose tackles toil in anonymity in the NFL, but Raji is clearly an exception, especially after his big interception that left teammates in awe.

“You never see a defensive lineman make that play,” said defensive end Ryan Pickett. “It was just perfect. That was awesome to watch.”

Now that Raji has proven his ability to handle the football, it’s possible he could get a rushing attempt in the Super Bowl and score an offensive touchdown, just like the Bears’ William “The Refrigerator” Perry did 25 years ago.

Teammates lately have been calling Raji “The Freezer” and would love to see him show off his moves against the Steelers.

“You like to see guys out there having fun and playing,” said Jenkins. “Hopefully he can get out there and do some more dancing next Sunday.”

Full story HERE

Only Packer with a Super Bowl ring is John Kuhn

January 30, 2011 by  
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By Gary D’Amato, Journal-Sentinel

~Green Bay — The Pittsburgh Steelers released John Kuhn at the end of training camp in 2005, but re-signed the rookie running back to their practice squad with five games left in the regular season.

Call it a fortuitous bit of timing.

Kuhn has scored two touchdowns so far in this post-season run. Do we hear another "Kuuuuuuuuhn" near the goalline?

Though Kuhn didn’t have a whole lot to do with it, the Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XL, beating the Seattle Seahawks, 21-10, in Detroit.

Kuhn got a Super Bowl ring out of the deal. He earned it and he’s proud of it, but it’s not like he wears it when he picks up the dry cleaning.

“It’s at home here,” he said Monday. “I keep it in the safe. I don’t look at it all that much. I was on the practice squad.”

There’s nothing wrong with that. Still, any player would tell you he’d much rather win a ring by contributing on the field than by taking up space on the sideline.

“I’ve always told myself I wanted to get on an active roster and win one on the field,” Kuhn said.

He’ll have that chance Feb. 6, when the Packers play his old team, the Steelers, in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“I’m excited. I’m really excited,” said Kuhn, normally one of the least excitable guys in the Packers’ locker room. “I was secretly hoping (Pittsburgh would win the AFC title) because I still have a bunch of friends over there. It’s just a special feeling.”

Kuhn is the lone Packers player with a Super Bowl ring. The only others who have played in the game are Ryan Pickett and Charles Woodson, both of whom were on losing teams.

That Kuhn is getting another shot, this time as a key contributor on offense, is just one of many feel-good stories on this team.

Kuhn has a Super Bowl ring from his days on the Steelers practice squad when they won the Super Bowl for Jerome Bettis. But John wants to "earn" one this time. He's scored 5 touchdowns in the Packers last 5 games.

He played in nine games with the Steelers in 2006 and the Packers signed him off waivers just before the start of the ’07 season. He spent the next three years playing special teams and blocking for Ryan Grant, who rushed for 956, 1,203 and 1,253 yards.

Grant hurt his ankle in the season opener this year and suddenly Kuhn’s role changed. After getting just 16 rushing attempts in his first 46 games in Green Bay, the 28-year-old Kuhn became a workhorse.

He split carries with Brandon Jackson for much of the season and finished with 281 yards on 84 carries (3.3 average) and four touchdowns. He also caught 15 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns and finished third on the team in scoring behind kicker Mason Crosby and receiver Greg Jennings.

Late in the season, Kuhn’s role changed again with the emergence of rookie James Starks. In three playoff games, including the NFC Championship Game, he has been used mostly as a lead blocker.

He has carried the ball just six times for 8 yards in the postseason. But he’s also caught six passes for 53 yards and has scored two touchdowns.

“We lost Ryan early in the season and we’ve been trying to fill holes all season long,” Kuhn said. “We’ve done a good job. Each guy has stepped in different weeks and done something special.”

Mister End Zone Kuhn celebrates a touchdown here in Foxboro versus the Patriots in December.

Along the way, he has become a fan favorite at Lambeau Field because of his no-nonsense, blue-collar approach to the game. In short-yardage situations, the cheer of “K-u-u-h-n” fills the bowl, and it’s even been audible in road games.

“You definitely hear them,” he said. “I think it’s helped us a little bit. Sometimes a defense might key on me and we can do a play-action, so it’s nice.”

Kuhn grew up in York, Pa., where he was perhaps the only Dallas Cowboys fan in town, and went on to set 27 school records at Shippensburg. He graduated with a 3.293 grade-point average and a degree in chemistry.

Former Dover High School fullback John Kuhn (33), shown here playing for Shippensburg University against Shepherd University in 2005, is a fullback for the NFL's Green Bay Packers. At Shippensburg, he set 27 school records and four Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference marks. (Daily Record/Sunday News -- File)

He’s an unlikely Super Bowl veteran on a team of high-profile players. But as one of the few who has gone through the week-long pre-game drill, with its distractions and media obligations, he had some advice.

“You need to embrace it,” he said. “You need to really enjoy the fact that you’re there. But at the same time you need to win that game. You’re there to play a game ultimately and to try to win it. If you win it, it makes all the memories that much sweeter.”

It’s going to be a long two weeks, and Kuhn can hardly wait.

“I’m anxious already for the game,” he said. “I want to get there and I want to play. Because like I said, this has been something that I’ve looked at ever since I was there with Pittsburgh, and I just wanted to get back there and play so badly.

“And to be back there and play against Pittsburgh, it’s a whirlwind of emotions.”

More than anything, Kuhn wants a second Super Bowl ring.

This one, he might even wear.

Full story HERE

Here’s another fantastic article about John Kuhn and his background and hometown.

Where's Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes? Who said "White Men Can't Jump"? Here Kuhn leaps over Dallas Cowboy Barry Church in the Packers November 7th 45-7 blowout win.

Steelers boast decorated Super Bowl-experienced veterans

January 29, 2011 by  
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By Rob Reischel, Journal-Sentinel

~Green Bay — The Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster is dotted with Super Bowl heroes. From Ben Roethlisberger to James Harrison to Hines Ward, the Steelers have a “been there, done that” attitude about the world’s biggest sporting event.

In all, Pittsburgh has 14 current starters who have won a Super Bowl championship. The Steelers have 10 players with two rings and 25 players who have competed in a Super Bowl.

Hines Ward shows off his two championship rings. The receiver was MVP of Super Bowl XL.

The Green Bay Packers haven’t been in a Super Bowl since 1997. The only Packers to play in a Super Bowl are cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Ryan Pickett, and both played on losing teams.

When these teams meet for the Vince Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 6, the Steelers will have an enormous advantage in experience. The Packers are going to try convincing themselves over the next eight days that component doesn’t matter.

“I look at it like the hungry dog hunts harder than the fat dog,” Packers tight end Donald Lee said. “And we have a lot of hungry dogs in this locker room that are willing to do whatever it takes to win that game. I’m sure they’re willing to do what it takes, too, but if I was a betting man, I’d bet my money on the hungry dog.”

This is the Steelers’ third Super Bowl appearance in six years. Pittsburgh defeated Seattle and Arizona in Super Bowls XL and XLIII, respectively, and many of its key players from those teams remain.

Ward was the MVP of Super Bowl XL after catching five passes for 123 yards and a touchdown. Harrison had one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII. And Roethlisberger was the winning quarterback in each of those games.

Others like Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, mammoth nose tackle Casey Hampton, steady tight end Heath Miller and splendid linebackers LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior and Larry Foote have all played a role in Pittsburgh’s recent dominance. Even 38-year-old head coach Mike Tomlin, now in his fourth year, has a Super Bowl win on his résumé.

Pittsburgh’s roster is packed with players who have enjoyed great success on Super Sunday.

“It’s meaningful,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy admitted. “But we’re aware of it and understand that we haven’t been there before, and that’s something we’ll talk about and make sure expectations and responsibilities (are) clear for everybody.”

Packers running back John Kuhn was on the Steelers’ practice squad in 2006 and got a ring after Pittsburgh beat Seattle that year. Kuhn never played in that game, though.

Pickett was a rookie with St. Louis in 2001 when the Rams lost to New England in Super Bowl XXXVI. And Woodson was part of Oakland’s 2002 team that was routed by Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Beyond that, Green Bay’s roster is devoid of Super Bowl experience.

“I believe if we stay calm and stay cool and understand what’s going on, everything will work out,” Packers running back Brandon Jackson said. “We’ve been on the big stage before, not as big as this, but as far as playoffs and everything like that, we’ve been on that type of stage. We’re going to handle our business, stay calm and cool and everything will work out.”

On Friday, several Packers said they believed Pittsburgh’s experience might be more beneficial during the week leading up to the game than the actual game. Super Bowl week is packed with potential distractions, and that experience will be new to most of Green Bay’s players.

“I think the only advantage they have on us is getting through the week and dealing with the distractions,” Kuhn said. “They will have experienced that before and they know how to play that game. We are well aware of that and we know the advantage they might have in the distraction game.

“But when we get into the game, then it’s just the Super Bowl. Then it’s just a football game. We’ve all experienced plenty of football games, but it’s the event around the Super Bowl that nobody has experienced.”

Last season, a New Orleans team making its first trip to the Super Bowl upset a veteran Indianapolis team. In Super Bowl XLII, a New York Giants team with little Super Bowl experience stunned New England, which had won three Super Bowls earlier in the decade.

The inexperienced Packers believe they’ve earned their stripes with three straight postseason road wins. Now, a veteran Pittsburgh team stands in Green Bay’s way of greatness.

“When it comes down to it, it’s still about playing the game,” Packers rookie tight end Tom Crabtree said. “It’s not about what you’ve done in the past, or if we’ve been to Super Bowls before. When it comes down to it, it’s the same game we’ve played all year.”

Full story HERE

Green Bay Packers prepared to match Pittsburgh Steelers’ physical style of play

January 29, 2011 by  
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By Pistol Pete Dougherty, Green Bay Press-Gazette

~Going back to former coach Bill Cowher’s teams in the 1990s, and really to their “Steel Curtain” defenses of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers year-in and year-out carry the reputation among NFL lifers as one of the toughest and most physical teams in a tough and physical league.

It’s become the permanent identity of an elite franchise that’s going for its third Super Bowl title in the last six years. And it’s justified regarding this year’s Steelers, according to Mike Holmgren, the former Green Bay Packers coach who just finished his first season as president of the Steelers’ AFC North Division-rival Cleveland Browns.

“Physically, yeah, they get after it pretty good,” Holmgren said. “And they tackle. It’s a physical group. Now Green Bay strikes me — we didn’t play the Packers, we played them preseason — they strike me as the same type of team. They tackle, and they’re good at creating turnovers.”

Meeting and winning that physical challenge, then, will be paramount for the Packers in their matchup against the Steelers in the Super Bowl next week.

Offensively, the Packers are a passing team, and the Steelers have the NFL’s top-ranked run defense, so it’s hard to see the Packers winning there. But if the Packers prove unable to push around the Steelers’ front seven, they at least must handle the pass rush.

Defensively, though, the Packers think they can match any team in the NFL in tough, physical play. Their 3-4 scheme includes a personnel group they use against run-oriented teams on early downs and that features three huge defensive linemen — in essence three nose tackles in B.J. Raji (337 pounds), Ryan Pickett (340 pounds) and Howard Green (340 pounds).

“We love it, we get after people pretty good,” Pickett said of that grouping. “Pittsburgh deserves it, and that’s what we’re looking for, a reputation for rough, tough guys.”

The Packers also have two midseason replacements in their starting lineup in linebacker Desmond Bishop and safety Charlie Peprah who, though not as fast as the players they replaced (Nick Barnett and rookie Morgan Burnett), are more physical in defending the run, where the Steelers try to establish physical superiority.

“The physical part of the game, like a big hit on a hard tackle, is definitely overrated,” Bishop said, “but I can definitely send a message to them, and for us, that we don’t care how tough (they are), we’re going to bring it.”

The Steelers’ physical brand of football is an organizational commitment from the top down and includes an emphasis on running the ball well on the bad fields of the Pittsburgh winter.

The Steelers covet power halfbacks — 250-pound Jerome Bettis was their primary back from 1994 to 2004, and after going with 212-pound Willie Parker for three seasons, they’ve had 225-pound Rashard Mendenhall the last three years. One of their backups this season is Isaac Redman, a 230-pound rookie.

They also emphasize run blockers on the line and last spring became one of only five teams in the past decade to draft a center in the first round when they took Maurice Pouncey at No. 18 overall.

“I don’t think any team is going to run the ball without priding themselves on being physical,” Raji said.

Although not as dirty or violent as his Steelers counterpart James Harrison, Clay Matthews is a beast getting after QBs

But the Steelers’ physical reputation on offense is enhanced by other positions as well, notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and receiver Hines Ward.

Quarterback is an unusual position to contribute to a team’s physical identity, but Roethlisberger does it because he’s so big (6-foot-5, 241 pounds) and strong for the position. One of his greatest assets is keeping plays alive by shrugging off sacks that bring down most quarterbacks.

“(The physical style) shows up mainly in their blocking, you see a receiver downfield staying with his block,” Bishop said. “And you see Ben Roethlisberger fearless in the pocket.”

Ward, unlike Roethlisberger, has only OK size for his position (6-0, 205) but is a physical presence because of his ruthless mentality as a blocker. Ward is renowned — notorious in some circles — for aggressively blocking defensive backs up to the whistle and for crack-back type blocks in the open field against defensive backs and linebackers. In 2008, he ended Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers’ season with a jaw-breaking block.

Ward certainly carries a reputation around the NFL. A poll of players conducted by Sports Illustrated in 2009 chose him the league’s dirtiest player with 11.4 percent of the vote. Leading up to the AFC championship last week, New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie called Ward “dirty,” and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine ridiculed Ward by saying his players call him “the toughest guy in the league when nobody’s looking.”

Of the several Packers defensive players interviewed for this story, none agreed with those characterizations.

“He cracks hard,” Pickett said. “Legal hits. He plays hard.”

When asked if Ward crosses the line, Bishop said: “No, I don’t think so.”

On defense, the Steelers’ earned reputation for physical play comes from several places, starting with the NFL’s top-ranked run defense in fewest yards allowed and yards allowed per carry. The player best-known for violent play, though, is outside linebacker James Harrison, who had 10½ sacks this season and 45 over the past four years. Harrison, a smallish (6-0, 242) but explosive outside pass rusher, was fined four times for illegal hits this season for a total of $125,000.

“I think that’s just a guy doing his job,” Green said. “I’m a defensive guy myself, some of the (fined) plays I’ve seen, to me he was just playing hard.”

The Packers, in fact, seem determined not to suggest in any way the Steelers cross the line into dirty play because they’re unwilling to concede anything in the physical part of the game.

“We feel like we’re physical, teams that play us probably say the same thing,” Pickett said. “When you play physical, you play to our strength.”

Steelers face tough challenge with Packers’ secondary

January 29, 2011 by  
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By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

~Ben Roethlisberger became only the third quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 500 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions when he beat the Green Bay Packers on the final play in December 2009 — one of the most exciting games played at Heinz Field.

A little over a year later, that same Packers secondary will try to stop Roethlisberger and the Steelers again on a bigger stage — Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas.

Well, sort of.

The personnel in the secondary is largely unchanged from that regular-season game 14 months ago, won by the Steelers, 37-36. Three of the four starters remain — cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams and safety Nick Collins.

But the production and performance is much different, at least from that game.

Steelers WR refers to Charles Woodson as the Packers' version of Troy Polamalu.

The Packers defense led the NFL with the lowest opponent passer rating (67.2) and was second with 24 interceptions, one of the reasons they allowed an NFC-low 240 points.

That, though, doesn’t mean the Steelers can’t, or even won’t, have success throwing the ball in the Super Bowl.

In fact, wide receiver Hines Ward expects the offense to have plenty of chances to make plays against the Packers.

“A lot of teams aren’t capitalizing on their mistakes,” Ward said of the Packers, who ranked fifth in the league in pass defense in the regular season. “Watching film, you see guys running wide through, but the quarterback is looking the wrong way. I don’t know what their reads are, I don’t know their schemes, but I know if we got into that position Ben’s read is to the wide-open guy.”

It is the Packers, not the Steelers, who are known as the explosive offensive team. And, in the postseason, that has been the case — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has had 15 pass plays of 20 yards or longer, six more than any other quarterback.

But, in the regular season, the Steelers had 62 pass plays of 20 yards or longer, second only to the San Diego Chargers (66). The Packers had 57.

“If Ben extends the play, there’s an opportunity to make plays in this game,” Ward said. “You’ll see some guys running down the seams or wherever. We just got to make sure we’re looking in the right direction.”

Ward and wide receiver Mike Wallace were not able to make plays against the New York Jets and their cornerbacks, Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, combining for just three catches for 20 yards.

And they will be facing maybe the two best cornerbacks in the NFC this time — Williams, who has nine interceptions in 19 games, including three in the postseason; and veteran Woodson, whom Ward calls “their Troy Polamalu.”

Woodson, 34, lines at left cornerback in the Packers’ base 3-4 defense, an alignment they use only 25 percent of the time. In their nickel package, Woodson lines up in the slot and plays like a safety, even a linebacker.

“They use him like we use Troy,” Ward said. “He can play anywhere. He’s so big and strong.”

“He thinks he’s a linebacker,” Wallace said, describing the way Woodson plays. “He’s like a small linebacker. He wants to tackle. He doesn’t want to get in open space. He wants to be in short space and make tackles.”

Woodson doesn’t cover as well as he used to, though 30 of his career 47 interceptions have come in the past five seasons with Green Bay. When the Packers use five defensive backs in passing situations, rookie speedster Sam Shields comes in at left corner and Woodson moves inside.

Most of the time, that means he will be lined up against Ward when the Steelers use three wide receivers.

On occasion, he will be matched against rookie Emmanuel Sanders.

“He’s probably one of the best slot players in the game right now,” said Sanders, who has five catches for 74 yards in the postseason, of Woodson. “He sees the game so slow because he’s been in the NFL so long. I’m looking forward to it. I like to go against the best.”

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11029/1121510-66.stm#ixzz1CQsPOARn

Steelers Notebook: Pouncey has 50-50 chance to play

January 29, 2011 by  
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By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

~Maurkice Pouncey showed up at the Steelers facility Friday wearing a protective boot on his injured left ankle, not the hard cast he had been wearing the past couple days.

Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a leg injury during last Sunday's AFC championship game at Heinz Field.

Also, because the Steelers and Green Bay Packers were required to submit an official injury report for the first time for Super Bowl XLV, Pouncey was listed as questionable — meaning he has a 50-50 chance to play.

The Steelers are holding out hope the rookie center can play against the Packers, even though the Post-Gazette reported Wednesday that Pouncey has a broken bone in his left ankle to accompany the high-ankle sprain he sustained in the AFC championship game.

Pouncey, defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps tendon) and safety Will Allen (sprained knee) were listed as questionable. Smith, who has not played since Week 6, has not participated in a practice since his injury and is not expected to play in the Super Bowl.

Allen, though, said he intends to play, no matter what.

“I’m playing,” Allen said, emphatically. “No way I’ll miss my first Super Bowl.

More injury updates

As usual, Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu practiced Friday for the first time this week. So did cornerback Bryant McFadden (abdominal/groin) and rookie wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (sprained toe). They are listed as probable.

Left tackle Jonathan Scott (ribs) did not practice again, though he is listed as probable.

Bunch o’ blarney?

The government of Ireland wants to bring an NFL game to the county next season, and the Steelers would seem to be a natural because their owner, Dan Rooney, is the U.S. ambassador to Ireland.

But talk of the game is coming from Ireland, not the Steelers.

The game would be against the Arizona Cardinals and played in the same stadium where the Steelers and Chicago Bears played a preseason game in 1997. It would be in addition to the regular-season game the NFL plays annually in Wembley Stadium in London.

Don’t book your travel plans yet.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11029/1121551-66.stm#ixzz1CQqTxkVp

Green Bay packs middle with plenty of run-stuffing beef

January 27, 2011 by  
Filed under News

By Pete Prisco, CBS Sportsline

~The listed weight for Green Bay Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett is 340 pounds.

Yeah, and Oprah Winfrey is a runway model.

“This game [340 pounds] was right,” Pickett said after Sunday’s NFC Championship Game. “I don’t know if other games it was right. It might be a little low. I’m somewhere in the area.”

Cullen Jenkins' return from injury helped spark the Pack's run D in January. (Getty Images)
Cullen Jenkins’ return from injury helped spark the Pack’s run D in January. (Getty Images)

Here’s a sure bet: He wasn’t in the area Sunday, despite what he might say. His ample gut was hanging over his pants, which were so tight they made him seem like the fat woman at the gym in spandex.

If he’s 340, Rex Ryan is 140.

Pickett is not alone in the Supersize Me category on the Green Bay line. Nose tackle B.J. Raji, the hero of the Sunday’s title game, is listed at 337 pounds, but he sure looks bigger than that. And when Howard Green is in the lineup at right end, the field certainly tilts in the direction of the Packers’ defense. He’s listed at 365 pounds. And that might be kind.

That means the three players who started up front against the Chicago Bears on Sunday combined to weigh more than a half a ton.

We love big guys. When William “The Refrigerator” Perry was making a splash in the mid-1980s, America took to him. He was a big, lovable guy. Here’s a fact: He was listed at 30 pounds less than Raji, the smallest of this group.

We know the Steelers will want to run the ball against the Packers in Super Bowl XLV, but the three wide loads up front might have something to say about that. Pittsburgh averaged 4.1 yards per attempt in the regular season. The Steelers struggled to run the ball against the Ravens in their first playoff game, but the two lead backs — Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman — ran it 31 times for 148 yards last week in the AFC Championship Game against the New York Jets.

“We consider teams running on us a challenge to our manhood,” Raji said.

It was challenged then in 2010. The Packers, despite their ample bulk, didn’t play the run as well as expected. Green Bay finished the season ranked 18th in total rushing defense and 28th in yards per attempt.

The Packers gave up an eye-opening 4.7 yards per rush and 114.5 yards per game. Only four non-playoff teams had lower per-rush averages.

But things changed in the postseason. The run defense improved and it’s a reason why the Packers are headed to the big game. In three playoff games, the Packers have given up 209 yards on 59 rushes, a 3.5 average. The best rushing total by any of the three teams they beat was the 83 the Bears got last week in the NFC Championship Game. But that took 24 carries.

Why has it been better?

On opposing offenses trying to run the ball on the Packers big beef defense: "We consider teams running on us a challenge to our manhood," Raji said.

On opposing offenses trying to run the ball on the Packers big beef defense: “We consider teams running on us a challenge to our manhood,” Raji said.

“It’s a lot of reasons,” Pickett said. “I just think we got better. But a lot of the runs that teams got early were quarterback runs and things like that. Mainly, we got better.”

“Who’s to say?” Raji said. “Maybe it’s because the intensity picks up. I don’t know for sure.”

The return of Cullen Jenkins to the line has helped. Jenkins, who is the smallest of the group at 305 pounds, missed the final four games with a calf injury. He might be the best pass rusher of the down linemen, but he’s also capable against the run.

Football is at its purist when one team tries to run on the other. Green Bay linemen can’t wait for the challenge the Steelers will bring.

“We love that they run it,” Pickett said. “Chicago wanted to run it, and we did a good job. That’s right down our alley. We are good enough on the back end that if we stop the run up front, it will be hard for anybody to move the ball on us.”

It starts with Raji. He is a power player in the middle of the line, often forcing teams to double him. He also has quickness to go with that power. He showed that off when he returned an interception 18 yards for a touchdown against the Bears. He is so athletic that the Packers use him as a lead blocker on short-yardage plays.

Raji is a first-year starter after being a 2009 first-round pick. His ability to take over the nose allowed the team to move Pickett outside to end. Raji played at a Pro Bowl level all season and also had 6½ sacks as a pass rusher.

“He’s just an athletic guy in there,” Pickett said.

With the size of the three players up front, it frees the linebackers and safeties to get to the football. When Chicago had success running some against the Packers’ nickel defense, coordinator Dom Capers went to a scheme that put Charles Woodson down in the box as a safety. That quickly flipped the momentum back to the Green Bay run defense.

“Nobody is going to run on me and B.J.,” Pickett said. “It’s tough to move us at our size. And Howard is there with us.”

You want to run, then you better move the half ton.

Full story from Prisco HERE

49ers, NFL, pay for passing on Rodgers 23 times in the 2005 Draft

January 26, 2011 by  
Filed under News

By Mark Kreidler, ESPN.com

~It lays out so beautifully now, doesn’t it? It’s just like they drew it up.

That time in the green room — the four hours and 35 minutes Aaron Rodgers spent waiting to hear his name called in the 2005 NFL draft — was divine intervention, not humiliation on a stick. Getting passed over by 21 teams, including the one that was seriously flirting with making him the No. 1 pick, was but a footnote to greatness.

Aaron Rodgers had to wait on draft day until the Packers took him at No. 24.

Being chosen by a Green Bay franchise featuring a future Hall of Famer who was unwilling to seriously discuss giving up his job was a gateway to Rodgers’ success, not the great wall of career obstruction. Sitting behind Brett Favre for three years ultimately produced seasoning, where bitterness easily might have pooled.

Today, one can look at Rodgers and see that he is on the verge of emphatically completing a historically rare feat: following a legend into a quarterback job and succeeding at it.

Really, though, one of the clear readings of Rodgers’ journey is that just enough things went exactly wrong to eventually produce something terribly right.

Start with that ’05 draft, a story that Packers fans already know well. Wait, don’t start there. We’ll get to the San Francisco 49ers‘ organizational face-plant in a minute. Begin, instead, with the idea that Rodgers landed on the football radar in the first place almost by mistake.

Rodgers graduated from high school in Chico, Calif., to zero scholarship offers from NCAA Division I programs. None. (Note to kids who love football: It’s never really over, is it?) He enrolled at nearby Butte Community College. He was there, biding his time, when Cal football coach Jeff Tedford arrived to scout Butte’s tight end. Tedford found a quarterback for his trouble.

NEW YORK - APRIL 23: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (California) poses with his jersey after being drafted 24th overall by the Green Bay Packers during the 70th NFL Draft on April 23, 2005 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

After a breakout career at Cal, Rodgers was considered by some to be a draft risk, partly because Tedford’s previous quarterback charges (Akili Smith and Kyle Boller, among others) had fared only modestly by NFL high-pick standards. Rodgers was knocked by some for being cocky, which, as the passage of time suggests, likely is one of the qualities — firmly entrenched self-confidence — that kept him going for three years as Favre’s clipboard carrier. But there you go.

Alex Smith was the high-octane product of Urban Meyer’s offense at Utah. He was a little taller than Rodgers and thought by some to be more pro-ready. Though Meyer cautioned that Smith would need adjustment time to figure out the NFL style, 49ers coach Mike Nolan and his front office, a group that included current Packers coach Mike McCarthy, were enchanted.

The 49ers took a long look at Rodgers, the Northern California kid who grew up idolizing Joe Montana and had San Francisco at the top of the list of teams for which he would most like to play. But on draft day, with the first overall pick, the Niners blew right by him in favor of Smith.

Missed it by that much.

Summoned to New York by the NFL for draft day, Rodgers proceeded to sit in the waiting room through 23 picks, the room gradually emptying out and the other handful of players who had been invited for the event hearing their names called and going out to meet their new teams. After the 49ers at the top, teams drafted for need, and Rodgers wasn’t the need.

When the Packers finally took Rodgers at No. 24 — four and a half hours and perhaps $30 million removed from that No. 1 pick — the fans at the Javits Center, on Manhattan’s West Side, gave him a long, loud ovation. They were perhaps more relieved than anything. Rodgers said something that day about how God had been teaching him humility and patience. Both were in play.

We see now what a beautiful pathway was cleared. One can see that, while Smith was thrown to the wolves by the 49ers in his rookie season behind a dreadful offensive line, Rodgers went to Green Bay and began to learn the pro game while watching Favre play it. While Smith got beaten up and yanked around through six offensive coordinators in six years, Rodgers studied his craft and eventually, though not effortlessly, took over a Packers offense that already was functioning at high levels.

As many people suggested at the time (this space included), Rodgers got the better end of the deal. And so did the Pack.

The Sporting News had it right, at least the arm grades. Rodgers may not have the same straight line foot-speed as Smith, but Rodgers has been the best running QB other than Michael Vick.

The speculation now about how things might have gone had Rodgers been the No. 1 pick, and thus sentenced to life with the dysfunctional 49ers, misses the point. There’s no going back. There certainly is no predicting that Smith could have enjoyed the kind of career Rodgers is having, because only Rodgers and the Packers have created that. Rodgers has earned every compliment. No matter what anyone thinks about Favre this minute, the larger truth is that Rodgers had to step in for a legend at Lambeau Field. It was never easy.

In the modern NFL, perhaps only Steve Young, who followed Montana, has pulled off a similar feat. Young’s path, too, was substantially less obvious — life in the USFL; years spent running from defenders in Tampa Bay; a trade to the 49ers that left him walking the sidelines watching Montana play.

In the end, Young’s circuitous route led to the Hall of Fame. Rodgers, meanwhile, finds himself one victory from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Funny thing about the road to greatness: It’s sometimes in the last place you look.

Full story HERE

Where would the Packers be right now had the 49ers not screwed it up at the top? They made the classic mistake of going with the taller, larger guy, as Seattle did in 1991 taking QB McGwire over QB Favre.

Super Bowl XLV, pitting Packers vs. Steelers, is one for history books

January 26, 2011 by  
Filed under News

By Peter King, Monday Morning QB, Sports Illustrated

~CHICAGO — We’ll get to the Super Bowl matchup that Doris Kearns Goodwin would love (it’s historic, for those not familiar with Ms. Goodwin’s work), and to the volcanic Jay Cutler situation, and to one of the greatest predictions in sports history (sort of) soon enough. But I begin this morning with two things — the Super Bowl XLV Factoid That Will Interest Everyone, and something Packers GM Ted Thompson said, uncharacteristically, in the winning locker room 45 minutes after Green Bay 21, Chicago 14: “I think this game was good for America.”

He was speaking about the game just completed, but he may well have been speaking about the Pittsburgh-Green Bay matchup in 13 days. The Packers were born in 1921 and the Rooney family bought a franchise in Pittsburgh in 1933 (the Pirates then, and renamed the Steelers in 1940).

Clay Matthews will be big-game hunting all night long Super Bowl Sunday

In the 45-year history of Super Bowls, there’s never been one with such history. Never has there been a title game with two teams more than 75 years old. And never has there been a matchup of teams with as many Super Bowl titles — Pittsburgh six, Green Bay three.

Steelers-Packers. It’s just cool.

And Jerry Jones, you built the big Arlington ballyard, halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, for occasions just like this — a Super Bowl dripping with history, and with fans who would walk a thousand miles to see the game. I can just hear those voices that spoke to Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. Kind of. You built it, Jerry, and they will come. Oh, they will most definitely come.

Now for a Paul Harveyish factoid:

In the summer of 1989, a small-college tight end from Baker (Kansas) University came home to Pittsburgh to begin a coaching career. He found his way onto the staff at the University of Pittsburgh as an unpaid grad assistant. To support himself, he worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift in the toll booth at Exit 5 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (the Allegheny Valley exit), 25 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh. His dad, a firefighter, police officer and bar owner near a dying steel mill, raised him to be tough, respectful, hard-working and — a Steeler fan. Which he was, loving the Steelers as a teenager when they won their four Super Bowls in the ’70s.

The toll-taker, Mike McCarthy, will try to break the hearts of everyone back home. He’s the Green Bay coach.

And now you know the rest … of the story.

***

The matchup is a reward to two organizations that built teams.

Early this morning, Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Bruce Arians considered Green Bay-Pittsburgh, the matchup. He said from his home what a good chunk of the country’s going to be thinking when people get their arms around this one. “Wow! Pittsburgh-Green Bay. Steeler Nation against the Cheeseheads! I know there’re 100-some thousand seats in that stadium down there [in Texas], but there’s not going to be near enough tickets for everyone who’ll want to see this one.”

Part of the reason is history, part is big-time quarterbacks, part is that it’s the Super Bowl. But I contend part is what each team has gone through to get here. The depth that Steeler director of football operations Kevin Colbert built may be rivaled this year by the depth built by only one man — Green Bay GM Ted Thompson.

The Packers led all NFL teams this year with 15 players on injured reserve. “We’ve played four quarterbacks and seven tackles,” countered Arians. “It’s been unbelievable. And today, we lose a great-blocking center, Maurkice Pouncey, with an [ankle] injury early and play an inexperienced kid there, Doug Ligursky, and what happens? We have our biggest rushing day of the year. What sets this year apart, this team apart, is the next-man-standing thing we’ve got going on.”

Here in Chicago, Green Bay running back James Starks, a sixth-round rookie from a Mid-American Conference school (Buffalo) who rode the bench most of the year, scored a first-quarter touchdown and rushed for a game-high 74 yards. In Pittsburgh, Steeler wide receiver Antonio Brown, a sixth-round rookie from a Mid-American Conference school (Central Michigan), caught the clutch pass of the game … for the second week in a row.

Starks: draft pick number 193. Brown: 195.

With two minutes left and nursing a 24-19 lead, the Steelers had third-and-six at the Jet 40. No New York timeouts left. If Ben Roethlisberger converted the first down, the game was over. If not, the Jets would have one more chance at a miracle. “Antonio Brown was Ben’s fourth option,” said Arians. Hines Ward and Heath Miller, the vets, were 1 and 2, and Mike Wallace 3. Roethlisberger got flushed right. He rolled and rolled, and just before he was going to have to eat it, he threw it over the outstretched hands of the pursuers into Brown’s gut. Gain of 14. Ball game.

“What’s rewarding,” Arians said, “is that Ben saw what I saw in training camp. I saw Emmanuel Sanders [a third-round pick] and Antonio playing well, and I told Ben, ‘These kids are gonna help us in December.’ I coached him, rode ’em really hard. I was unmerciful. But Ben saw it early, saw how good they could be. I said to Ben, ‘You hug ’em, I’ll cuss ’em,’ and it’s worked out. They’ve become good players for us.”

In Green Bay, you can say the same thing about Starks, who’s gotten some tough love from McCarthy, and free-agent cornerback Sam Shields, who has been terrific as the season’s gone on. Great story, this Shields.

An all-state receiver in high school in Sarasota, Fla., the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Shields went to Miami to play receiver, which he did for three years. Entering his senior season, the Hurricanes had a corner need and moved him to defense. “Never played corner in my life,” Shields said after the Pack survived and advanced. “But it’s what the team wanted, and I thought it might be better for my future.”

When the Pack scouted him after the season, regional scout Brian Gutekunst saw his raw speed and recommended him as a free agent. Sunday, in the biggest game of the year, he played about 70 percent of the snaps.

“Why? Because he’s gotten better in a hurry every week,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers told me afterward. “Plus, every practice he’s been in since he’s come here, he’s made a play. When you make plays like that, you get noticed.”

Maybe the Bears should have noticed him more. Late in the first half, driving at the Green Bay 41, Jay Cutler threw a deep ball up the left side for Johnny Knox; Shields leaped high and snagged it, sending Green Bay into the half with a 14-0 lead. Late in the fourth quarter, down 21-14, Caleb Hanie had the Bears at the Green Bay 29. On fourth-and-five, Hanie threw into double coverage and Shields stole his second ball of the day.

“I’m speechless,” Shields said meekly, grinning widely.

"It's like I tell my players,'' Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers told me in the Packers locker room Sunday. "In almost every game you play, it's going to come down to two, three, four plays. If we make 'em, we win. If we don't, we don't.' Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2011/writers/peter_king/01/23/championships/index.html#ixzz1C9hgNGii

Shields reminded me of Brown the week before, when I saw him in the Steelers’ locker room in Pittsburgh after the win over the Ravens. Giddy, almost. Just happy to be there. Now these college football afterthoughts nearly a year earlier are headed to the Super Bowl as important players. It’s a crazy game.

MORE HERE

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