In the Packers’ three road wins this postseason, they have topped the 30-carry mark in each game, a plateau that has been somewhat of a magic number since Head Coach Mike McCarthy took over in 2006. Green Bay has a 27-4 mark (.871), including playoff games, when running the ball 30 or more times in a game, including an 8-1 record (.889) this season.
If Green Bay runs the ball 30 times or more in Super Bowl XLV, it will be the first team this season to do so against a Pittsburgh defense that led the league in rushing defense at 62.8 yards per game. That average was the best in the league over the past decade behind only the 2006 Minnesota Vikings (61.6 yards per game), a defense that was run by Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
“The guys have been around each other for a while and they are an experienced bunch,” center Scott Wells said. “They have played in a lot of games, a lot of big games together, so that helps. Their scheme has been in place for a while. A lot of these guys have come into the league and stayed in the same scheme and have developed in that scheme.
“When you add to it outstanding athletes, which is what they have, and really well-coached athletes, I think that is why their defense has been successful.”
The Steelers’ 3-4 front is anchored by nose tackle Casey Hampton, a five-time Pro Bowl selection. Veteran defensive end Brett Keisel earned his first Pro Bowl bid this season as well, and the front’s ability to occupy blockers often allows the Steelers’ linebackers to make plays.
“I think they are just a very fundamentally solid team,” guard Daryn Colledge said. “They have got guys that can play gap defense, they’ve got guys that can play man-to-man defense. If you’ve got guys that can hold up two guys every single time you are trying to run the ball, then you are letting somebody go free, and that’s what they do a great job of.”
One of those fundamentals is tackling, and the Steelers’ ability to execute in that area was on display with the lack of explosive runs they allowed. Pittsburgh gave up just one 20-yard run all season, a 24-yard gain by Oakland running back Michael Bush in Week 11. Not since the 1997 Jacksonville Jaguars had an NFL team given up just one 20-yard run in a season, and Pittsburgh’s 22 runs of 10-plus yards allowed in 2010 were the fewest given up by a team in the league this decade.
“One of the things in defensive football from an offensive perspective is they don’t give up a lot of big plays in the running game,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “The reason is most explosive runs in the league are generated by a back making a safety or a linebacker miss at the second level. Since they tackle so well, you don’t see an awful lot of that.”
The Steelers were especially stingy on first down, with 97-of-173 (56.1 percent) first-down runs by their opponents going for 2 yards or fewer this season. Pittsburgh allowed its opponents an average of just 2.69 yards rushing on first down, the No. 1 mark in the NFL. Not surprisingly, that early-down success led to efficiency on third down as well, with Pittsburgh’s opponents converting just 33.5 percent of the time.
“When they are putting you in long third downs and long second downs all of the time, they have the ability to rush a lot,” Colledge said. “The fact is they can bring a pressure and rush from anywhere with the defense they run, and that makes it difficult for an offensive line. So we’ve got to find a way to limit the long down-and-distances.”
Being able to run the ball on Sunday would help slow down a Pittsburgh pass rush that produced a league-high 48 sacks this season.
“You need the defense to respect your ability to run the football,” Wells said. “A lot of our successful plays this year have been play-action passes. Without a run game, those plays don’t work.
“You don’t have to be 50-50 in the calls, but you have to have them respect your ability to run the ball so they have to play it and scheme it on defense.”
The Packers got off to a fast start in the NFC Championship win at Chicago, rushing for 104 yards on 18 carries (5.8 avg.) in the first half, their most in an opening half all season. That contributed to a 252-yard, 17-first down offensive performance in the first half before the Bears limited Green Bay to just 16 yards on 14 carries (1.1 avg.) after the break.
“We had very good balance in that first half,” Philbin said. “That’s the kind of rhythm we need on Sunday. Obviously they did a better job against us in the second half. We kind of struggled a little bit, and we’ve got to get it back. We are best when we can keep people off balance and keep them guessing a little bit.”
In the 2009 matchup against the Steelers at Heinz Field, Green Bay largely abandoned the run with a season-low 12 attempts for 60 yards (5.0 avg.) as quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for 383 yards and three touchdowns on a career-high 48 passing attempts. While it may seem logical to just focus again on spreading the Steelers out all game and throwing the ball 40-plus times, that is easier said than done.
“It’s hard when a defense can make an offense one-dimensional,” Philbin said. “To have our offensive line just sit back every play and block a myriad of twists and blitzes and pressures, without having any type of curveball for them, that makes it difficult.
“I think if you look at our history, when we have really performed at a high level on offense, a lot of times you see us with the ability to use a wide array of our offense. In other words we have been able to run the ball, we have been able to use three-step drops, we have been able to run some screens, we have been able to throw the ball vertically down the field, we have been able to throw movement passes and move Rodgers around. That’s when we are really at our best in normal down-and-distance. For us to put up a lot of points and do that, I would think we are going to have to do some of those things again on Sunday.”
Additional coverage - Feb. 2