Like Aaron Rodgers jump-starting things with an 83-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings on his way to a (then) career-high 383 yards passing. And like the fourth-quarter explosion of 22 points as the Packers rallied from deficits of 10 and 2 points to take the lead in the see-saw game on two different occasions.
But just as memorable for the players and coaches in the film room was how that game began with an ugly opening series that appeared to portend a long day for the offense. The Steelers blitzed linebackers up the middle on the first two snaps of the game, and Rodgers was a sitting duck. He took a nasty shot to the chin on one of those plays from Lawrence Timmons, and it looked like the Pittsburgh pass rush was headed for a field day.
It took a major adjustment in blitz pickup, spearheaded by the protection calls of center Scott Wells and the sound blocking of running back Brandon Jackson, for the offense to enjoy the day it had. And it’s no secret that area of the Packers’ game will have to be sharp from the get-go in Super Bowl XLV next Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.
“There is going to be a point in this game where our running backs are going to have to close the door on their pressure,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said.
The Steelers, who led the league with 48 sacks in the regular season, get that pressure with an array of blitzes designed to create a mismatch for a defender against the pass-protection scheme. Send a linebacker who’s too quick around the edge for an offensive tackle or too big for a running back to stand up to. Or send a smaller defensive back who’s hiding behind the bigger guys and disguising when and where he’s coming. There are any number of angles they’ll attack from.
After the rough start last year at Pittsburgh, Wells and Jackson did an exemplary job of deciphering those blitzes, and Rodgers was sacked just one time. The Steelers were credited with only five quarterback hits on Rodgers’ career-high 48 pass attempts.
It helps that the Packers’ own defense runs a scheme very similar to the Steelers’ 3-4 with a variety of pressure packages. Green Bay has worked against that every day in training camp for two years now.
But for the most part, it still comes down to the running backs holding their own fundamentally with their blocking to keep the heat off Rodgers.
“I faced them before in the blitz pickup,” Jackson said. “Everything worked out well. But this is a different game on a different level. I’m just going to have to bring my ‘A’ game. I’m ready, I’m preparing hard, and (running backs coach) Edgar Bennett is preparing us well too.”
Bennett is also preparing rookie running back James Starks, whom McCarthy noted is “off to a good start” in blitz pickup for a young player. It’s imperative that Starks be up to speed on all the protection calls and that the coaching staff can trust him to pick up the blitz, because otherwise the Packers will be telegraphing runs when Starks is in the game and rendering play-action fakes to him useless.
“Coach has always emphasized picking up blitzes,” Starks said. “If you can’t protect Rodgers, you can’t play. That’s always a high emphasis in this organization.
“I need work at it, but I’m getting a lot better at it, and I’m going to continue to work so I can be a great blocker also.”
Starks said a lot of his work is in the film room with Bennett, who points out what to look for with certain blitzes, where the keys are, and which rusher becomes his responsibility and why.
Two rushers the Packers are paying the most attention to are outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley. As starters in the Steelers’ base 3-4, they don’t necessarily blitz in the surprise sense, but much like the Packers do with Clay Matthews, the Steelers will move them around to give them different matchups as they rush.
So, in essence, anyone and everyone must be prepared to block them.
The numbers Harrison and Woodley have compiled as a tandem in recent years are impressive. They each ranked in the top 10 in the AFC in sacks this year with 10.5 and 10, respectively, but their total of 20.5 sacks was actually their lowest of the last three seasons.
In 2009, they combined for 23.5 sacks (Woodley 13.5, Harrison 10), and in 2008 they combined for 27.5 when Harrison had 16 in winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Woodley added 11.5.
Throw in their playoff production and they stand out even more. In Pittsburgh’s last three postseason appearances (2007, 2008, 2010) covering six games, including Super Bowl XLIII two years ago, they have combined for 15.5 sacks, including 10 by Woodley.
“Harrison and Woodley are excellent pass rushers, so it's an excellent pair,” McCarthy said. “Statistically, probably the best pair over the last five years I would think pressuring the quarterback.”
Which is going to force the Packers to be at their best protecting that quarterback.
“Our whole protection unit, whether it's a back, whether it's a tight end, whether we're in empty and don't have any backs -- who knows what that's going to be,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said, “but our entire protection unit had better be aware.”
Additional coverage - Jan. 28