Nick Collins’ pick-six, Clay Matthews’ forced fumble, Aaron Rodgers’ TD passes to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson; all those moments forged Super Bowl heroes back on Feb. 6. There were two others, though, whose names and plays weren’t as big but whose contributions shouldn’t be left at the historical wayside.
Linebacker Frank Zombo and receiver/special-teamer Brett Swain were two unsung heroes in the Packers’ 31-25 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers in North Texas, each writing an unforgettable chapter in their young careers.
Zombo, who started eight regular-season games, hadn’t been part of Green Bay’s playoff run but was suddenly desperately needed in the Super Bowl. A knee injury kept him out of the final three regular-season games and all three NFC postseason contests, but fellow outside linebacker Erik Walden’s injured ankle in the NFC Championship in Chicago, fortunately for the Packers, coincided with Zombo’s recovery.
Not having taken a game snap in seven weeks, Zombo wasted no time making an impact. On Pittsburgh’s second play from scrimmage, he whipped left tackle Jonathan Scott and buried running back Rashard Mendenhall for a 4-yard loss, helping force a three-and-out on the game’s opening series.
“It was a Steeler draw play, something we worked on all week,” Zombo said the other day prior to a training camp practice. “They tried to club me upfield and I was able to keep my leverage and make a play.
“Going into (the Super Bowl), I was hoping I could play as well as I did in the middle of the season, and I think that kind of changed my mindset right off the bat. It was a good starting play to have, to set the tone for the rest of the game.”
He followed that up with the Packers’ only sack in the game, at a crucial moment. In the third quarter, Pittsburgh trailed 21-17 and faced third-and-13 from the Green Bay 32-yard line. Zombo and Matthews switched sides of the defensive formation, with Zombo rushing against right tackle Flozell Adams. He got away from Adams just as Ben Roethlisberger was stepping up in the pocket and brought him down for a 2-yard loss.
The sack forced the Steelers to try a 52-yard field goal, and Shaun Suisham’s kick wasn’t close. Zombo became the first undrafted rookie to record a sack in the Super Bowl since sacks became official in 1982.
“I can say for the rest of my life I had a sack in the Super Bowl, to help the team in a critical time, knock them out of field goal range and what-not,” said Zombo, who finished with six solo tackles.
“I graded out well. I graded out at 98 percent I remember. I had a great game and Coach (Kevin) Greene was pretty happy with how I was away for so long but came back and still was able to make some plays.”
Greene, who is Zombo’s position coach, will be looking for more of those plays as training camp and the preseason continue. No longer the unknown quantity he was as a rookie free agent just trying to make the team a year ago, Zombo is in a full-fledged battle for the starting outside linebacker spot opposite Matthews, with Walden and third-year pro Brad Jones.
Including the Super Bowl, Zombo had five sacks last year in his nine total starts, including one in his NFL debut against the elusive Michael Vick in Philadelphia.
“I got a taste of what it was like to start in the NFL, and I’m hungry to keep that spot,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re going to rotate or what-not, but I want that starting spot.”
Meanwhile, Swain just wants to hang onto a roster spot, a prospect that became even more challenging for him in a receiving corps that has grown deeper with the re-signing of James Jones and the addition of second-round draft pick Randall Cobb.
Adding to his anxiety is that, because of the new CBA rules regarding free agents, Swain can’t practice until Thursday, which will be the first time he’ll take the field since his under-the-radar performance in the Super Bowl.
That night, Swain was the Packers’ most productive player on the kickoff and punt-coverage units, registering four tackles as the Steelers posted paltry averages of 18.5 yards on six kick-returns and 1.3 yards on four punt-returns.
“My whole thing before the game was, you had a great opportunity to go out and play in one of the biggest spectacles of American sports, and you don’t just want to go into that situation and not leave everything on the field,” Swain said. “My whole thing was every play I was in there to give my full effort.”
He certainly did that, first by saving the Packers a big shift in field position following Collins’ interception for a touchdown. Collins had been flagged 15 yards for excessive celebration, forcing Green Bay to kick off from its own 15-yard line. Swain chased down Mewelde Moore after just an 11-yard return, putting the ball at the 36, far worse position than Pittsburgh had hoped for after the penalty.
Later, Swain brought down Antonio Brown at the Pittsburgh 23 following a 17-yard kickoff return, and after being moved to punt-gunner for defensive back Jarrett Bush (who was taking more defensive snaps due to injuries to Charles Woodson and Sam Shields), he got in Antwaan Randle El’s face to force a fair catch at the 20, and then knocked Brown out of bounds for a 1-yard loss on consecutive third-quarter punts.
Knowing he can make contributions like that has Swain itching to make his training-camp debut this week. He wants to resume displaying the special-teams prowess that landed him his first roster spot in 2009 after a year on the practice squad as a seventh-round draft pick.
“I think special teams is always a big focus, especially with me,” Swain said. “That was my kick start to making the team and being a part of the Packers. I’m always going to approach it like it’s my only way of making the team.”
His performance, as well as Zombo’s, in the Super Bowl should carry some weight, but both know that only goes so far.
“Super Bowl XLV, it’s already been played and it’s in the books,” Swain said. “What we’re focused on right now is what can we do to get us to Super Bowl XLVI?”