Steelers face tough challenge with Packers’ secondary
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.
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.”