With veteran wideout Donald Driver sustaining a game-ending ankle injury on a second-quarter reception and the Packers rarely going to their ground game against a Pittsburgh run defense that ranked No. 1 in the league this season, wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings played prominent roles in the offense’s aerial output.
For Nelson, it was the finest all-around performance during his three seasons in Green Bay as he recorded a career-best 140 receiving yards on a career-high nine receptions (15.6 avg.) with one touchdown. The 140 receiving yards topped Max McGee’s mark (138 in Super Bowl I) for the most by a Packer in a Super Bowl in franchise history.
“We’re not necessarily surprised,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “Sometimes the coverage dictates how many opportunities you are going to have in a specific game and the game plan of your opponent.
“He really stepped up. He was kidding me there up in the press box that he could hear me yelling at him on the drop. He played really well. He played extremely well and made some big plays.”
The dropped pass Philbin was referring to came early in the fourth quarter with the Packers protecting a 21-17 lead after once leading 21-3. On second down at the Pittsburgh 40, Rodgers went to Nelson over the middle with safety Ryan Clark covering him. Had Nelson hung on, the catch would have gone for at least 15 yards.
But on the very next play, quarterback Aaron Rodgers went right back to Nelson, who caught the ball on a crossing route at the 28-yard line and took it all the way down to the Pittsburgh 2 for a 38-yard catch-and-run, the Packers’ longest completion of the game.
“That’s what you have to do,” Nelson said about quickly putting the dropped pass behind him. “If you play this game long enough at this position you’re going to drop the ball, and you’ve got to move on.
“We’re level-headed. We don’t get too high, we don’t get too low as a whole wide receiver corps. We weren’t panicking at all when Pittsburgh started coming back. We just kept saying, ‘All right, we’ve got to go make plays.’ We knew it was going to be on us, and that’s why we stepped up and made plays.”
Nelson made plenty of them on Sunday, including a catch for the Packers’ first score of the game. On third-and-1, Rodgers lofted a perfectly thrown pass over cornerback William Gay to Nelson, who made a leaping grab for a 29-yard touchdown.
“It was actually a screen play,” Nelson said. “They kept up and bumped me. Aaron gave me a signal. I had the same route, but it was more of a signal like, ‘I am going to alert you. If you beat him, I am going to throw it to you.’
“I ran the route to win and he put a ball out there. We were able to connect and start the game off right.”
Jennings got into the act with a touchdown catch of his own late in the second quarter to extend Green Bay’s lead to 21-3. After Nelson ran a comeback route for a 17-yard gain on cornerback Bryant McFadden and running back James Starks picked up 12 yards on a run, Rodgers zipped a pass to Jennings over the middle for a 21-yard touchdown past a diving Clark as he attempted to make a deflection. Jennings also absorbed a big hit from Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu after the catch, but hung on for the score.
“It was just a beeline route,” Jennings said. “They played Cover-2 and I was able to slip (James Farrior) and get in between Polamalu and Ryan Clark there. Aaron threw a perfect ball.”
Jennings got into the end zone a second time early in the fourth quarter, beating Polamalu on a corner route for an 8-yard touchdown grab. But perhaps his biggest play of the night came later in the quarter. After quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s 25-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mike Wallace trimmed Green Bay’s lead to just 28-25, the offense faced a third-and-10 from the Packers’ 25.
Working out of the slot, Jennings beat cornerback Ike Taylor off the line as Rodgers zipped a pass to him down the seam for a 31-yard gain on a drive that ended with a field goal but ate up nearly five and a half minutes of the clock.
“Against a defense like that, you know they aren’t going to give up a whole ton of a lot in the run game, so you have to expose them in the areas where they can become vulnerable,” Jennings said. “There in the back end and the middle of the field, we were able to expose them and get guys open and make plays.”
In an approach almost identical to last year’s matchup between the teams in Week 15 at Heinz Field when the Packers ran the ball only 12 times, Green Bay picked up 50 yards on the ground on 13 attempts (3.8 avg.) on Sunday night. The offense focused on the matchups where they thought they had the advantage, with Nelson and Jennings two of the biggest beneficiaries on Sunday.
“Pittsburgh has a great defense,” Nelson said. “Their front seven is hard to do anything on. It’s tough to put Aaron back there like that as well. They have a great pass rush, a great run defense. I think we thought our best matchups were on the outside, and that’s just how the game went.
“It’s no disrespect to their DBs. It’s just that much respect for their front seven. Like I said, that’s where we feel comfortable is outside. Some teams are able to move the ball on them, but they are a great defense. If they weren’t a great defense they wouldn’t have been here, and we were just able to make enough plays.”