The four quarterbacks left standing in the conference championship games have a lot in common. They are all first-round draft picks under the age of 30. They aren't afraid to run if they have to, but they prefer to stay in the pocket and throw the ball. They all average more than 30 pass plays per game.
And on Sunday, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Chicago's Jay Cutler, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, and the Jets' Mark Sanchez will all face aggressive defenses that aren't about to let them get comfortable in the pocket. How each fares under this duress will ultimately determine if their team heads to Super Bowl XLV in North Texas.
The four defenses these quarterbacks will face can be downright nasty when it comes to stopping the run, which will apply more pressure on the quarterbacks. Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York were the top three run defenses in the NFL during the regular season, all giving up fewer than 91 yards a game (the Steelers were well in front of the other two, giving up just 63 yards a game on the ground), and since defensive end Cullen Jenkins returned to the Packers lineup during the playoffs, after missing the final five games of the regular season, Green Bay has tightened down the opposing run game.
Quite frankly, the running game might come off the passing game this weekend for all four teams. On paper there seems to be decent passing opportunities on first down, but sooner or later the defensive coordinators are going to dial up the pass rush and attempt to put these quarterbacks under siege.
Let's take a look at the pressure philosophy of the four defenses, and how they will attack the quarterbacks:
Packers defense vs. Jay Cutler
Under Dom Capers, the Packers bring heat on about 40 percent of their defensive calls. Green Bay called close to 225 pressures this season, about 14 a game, and had a sack one in every 10 times they came after the quarterback. The Packers, who are very capable of getting to the QB with three- and four-man rushes as well, sacked Jay Cutler nine times in two games this season.
The Packers have also been successful getting to the quarterback away from Lambeau Field; they have 32 sacks in 10 road games, including playoffs, or slightly more than three sacks per game. That's about the same rate Cutler has been sacked at home this season (30 in nine games).
Keep in mind, Capers sends corners, safeties and every linebacker in his pressure packages. Cutler will be under siege on Sunday; figure him to go down at least three times.
Bears defense vs. Aaron Rodgers
Rodgers was sacked two times in 75 pass attempts in the two games against the Bears this season, and he can live with that number. Chicago blitzes the least of the four remaining teams, making pressure calls about 25 percent of the time. The Bears had 11 of their 34 sacks in the regular season from pressure calls. They really expect the front four to get to the quarterback on their own. Rodgers was sacked 19 times in the team's 10 road games, which turned out to be one sack every 16 pass attempts. The Bears at home only got to opposing QBs once every 26 pass attempts. Like Cutler, Rodgers isn't afraid to run, especially in the red zone to avoid a sack. Figure Rodgersto be dropped once or twice in this game.
Steelers defense vs. Mark Sanchez
Sanchez has been sacked just two times in five postseason games over the past two years and just once against the Colts and Patriots combined this season. During the regular season on the road, Sanchez was equally impressive with just eight sacks in 10 games. Pittsburgh got to him only once in the December meeting, but this defense, led by coordinator Dick LeBeau, usually feasts on quarterbacks.
The Steelers bring pressure 43 percent of the time, and they expect to get a sack at least once every 10 blitz calls. Their three- and four-man calls also create headaches for opposing QBs. In nine home games this season, Pittsburgh has 28 sacks, or one in 12 pass plays.
By far, this is the most intriguing battle with the best pass protection team vs. the best pass rush. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley has been the featured guy in his five postseason games, with nine sacks, and he lines up opposite tackle Wayne Hunter, a career backup who replaced the injured Damien Woody late in the season. If (maybe when) the Steelers shut down the Jets' run game, Sanchez could find himself being sacked at least three times in this game.
Jets defense vs. Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger always gets sacked a lot, and the Jets usually blitz a lot, although they used three- and four-man rushes quite often against Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in the playoffs. New York, on average, will send pressure 55 percent of the time, but it could be less in this game with some form of a spy on Roethlisberger.
Roethlisberger has only played in seven home games this season, getting sacked 23 times, or once in every 12 pass attempts. In their 10 road games, the Jets have just 25 sacks, but they got to Roethlisberger three times when they met in Week 13. I suspect they will get to him at least that many times with all the injuries in the Steelers' offensive line.
In Roethlisberger's last three postseason games -- all victories -- he has been sacked 13 times. Look for him to cross the line of scrimmage four to five times in this game and run for a first down.
It is going to be a very physical Sunday for these four quarterbacks. Roethlisberger will handle the constant pounding like he always does, but it will look bad at times. Sanchez is not used to being hit a lot, but he is 4-2 as a starter when sacked three or more times in a game. Sanchez has only run the ball two times in his last four games and relies on good feet to move around and get rid of the ball. He has fumbled nine times this year and guys like Troy Polamalu and James Harrison will be looking to strip the ball from him. Cutler has to go shot-for-shot with Rodgers, but it appears he will be running for his life a few more times than Rodgers will be. Cutler has 12 runs of 10 yards or more and averages 4.7 yards per run. Rodgers appears to have a slight edge in avoiding the sacks this weekend, and he better, because he is 8-15 when sacked three or more times in his career.