Pittsburgh is better than anyone at stopping the run (by a wide margin), but it can't do it at the risk of opening up Green Bay's air attack. In studying the Packers' win over the Bears in the NFC title game, it amazed me how many times Chicago dropped a safety down in the box to defend the run. The Bears' front seven should have been able to slow the ground game enough that it could not beat them. More importantly, keeping the safety back in coverage would have given Aaron Rodgers a two-high-safety look before the snap and potentially made him stick with the run.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau knows the Packers' passing attack is far more dangerous than their run game. It's a good bet LeBeau gets after the run with his front seven a lot more than the Bears did.
In the three postseason wins en route to the Super Bowl, Rodgers completed 66 of 93 passes for 790 yards and six touchdowns to just two interceptions. Both of those picks came against the Bears, which led me to looking at that game in its entirety. I also examined the games Rodgers played against 3-4 defenses this season, since none of the previous playoff foes ran a defensive scheme similar to the Steelers.
Rodgers has been sacked 20 times in his 12 games against 4-3 defenses and 16 times against the six teams he faced that ran a 3-4. LeBeau will look at the problems the Jets, Dolphins and Redskins caused when they got to Rodgers 11 times and held the Packers to a total of 42 points. In those three games, nine of the sacks came from the back seven players.
There was no doubt the Packers were committed to protection schemes against the Bears. Green Bay called 19 pass plays using six- to eight-man protection schemes before they used their first five-man protection. The Packers wanted to show a two-running back formation look for the safety to drop down in the box and throw the skinny post.
On a first-and-10 situation with the Packers driving to open the game, they had two running backs in the backfield and blocking tight end Donald Lee in the game. The Packers went play-action pass as the safety dropped down. The result was easy pickings for Rodgers, who hit Jordy Nelson for 22 yards en route to their first touchdown. Although I expect more of the same from the Packers against a Steelers defense known for blitz pressures, look for Pittsburgh to play the pass, not the run. LeBeau knows eight-man protection is hard to beat, but sending the right three or four guys could get someone free.
One play LeBeau will pay close attention to in his film study is when the Packers were in their 11-personnel package (one RB, one TE, three WRs) on third-and-7 toward the end of the first quarter and the Bears sent a six-man pressure. Brian Urlacher came around the outside after the defensive lineman crashed down inside and was able to get to Rodgers for a sack and an 8-yard loss. Steelers inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons could run something very similar on Sunday and get to Rodgers with his quickness.
The Bears used some of their Cover 2 principles, especially in second-and-long situations. It occasionally forced Rodgers to hit the checkdown to the running back, something the Steelers might be willing to give up in order to prevent the vertical pass. On second-and-13 early in the second quarter, Rodgers hit Brandon Jackson on a short pass for 16 yards. LeBeau is going to look at the play as a solid call that failed because of poor tackling, and will expect James Farrior to make the stop.
When it comes to all the one-back sets the Packers use, it is critical for the Steelers to recognize which back is in the game. Jackson presents more open-field issues than John Kuhn does and it might be wise to "snatch blitz" Jackson and drop in coverage vs. Kuhn. A snatch blitz really isn't a blitz, but rather when a linebacker sees Jackson in the game, he runs through an open gap and takes him on in the backfield. That keeps Jackson from getting into the open field in the passing game.
The scariest passing concept the Packers employ, and the one Rodgers told me he loves, is the five-man protection scheme. He said he would rather have five receivers out in patterns and control the free blitzer himself rather than keeping in multiple targets to help in protection. The Packers waited until the first possession of the second half to use their five-man protection against the Bears. On third-and-8, the Bears tried a rare nickel blitz off the right side, but Rodgers felt the pressure and connected with Nelson for 21 yards against the Cover 2. The Steelers are more schooled in the art of pressure calls under LeBeau's guidance, so the results could be different. Whether it's Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor or a linebacker, they are expected to get there.
The Packers used 26 shotgun snaps against the Bears, five runs and 21 passes. When Green Bay and Pittsburgh met in 2009, the Packers used the shotgun on two runs and 35 passes, including all three touchdowns by Rodgers. The Steelers have to figure out how to get after Rodgers in the shotgun because their secondary will not hold up against wide receivers Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones and Nelson.
Pittsburgh also has to worry about Rodgers as a runner. He has run 12 times for 56 yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs. He had a tendency to escape to his right during the regular season, but he went left two times against the Bears for 37 yards. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley will have to be very aware of Rodgers' escape lanes.
The Steelers should expect to see 40-plus pass plays. They need to disguise their coverages and consistently play the pass instead of the run. They also have to prevent the deep ball and keep Rodgers from running free in the red zone. These aren't easy tasks, but the Steelers can learn from what the Packers did against the Bears and try to come up with a plan to slow Rodgers and Co. down.