There might not be two teams more evenly matched for the Super Bowl in quite some time. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers are very close when you compare the statistics, production, defensive scheme and quarterbacks.
The Steelers clearly have more playoff experience, but the Packers are on a three-game road tour that produced 90 points and allowed just 51. The last three Super Bowls produced 31, 50 and 48 points, but I think we are going to see a higher-scoring game in Super Bowl XLV even though both defenses ranked No. 1 and 2 in scoring this season.
I talked with Ben Roethlisberger about it this week, and he agrees we are in store for a high-scoring event. Here are the 10 things I will be watching closely during the game.
1. Who blocks zone blitz best?
The two defensive coordinators believe in pressuring the quarterback and playing zone coverage behind the call. It's known as the fire-zone blitz package, and no one runs it better than Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who worked together for three years in Pittsburgh.
The last time these two teams met during the 2009 season, both offenses didn't even bother trying to establish the run. The teams combined to call 100 pass plays. The Packers' defense will have new zone- blitz calls designed for this game and the Steelers will go with their old reliable pressure calls.
Roethlisberger was sacked five times by the Packers in that game, while Aaron Rodgers was sacked just once. This would suggest Green Bay blocked better than Pittsburgh did, except for the fact Roethlisberger still threw for 503 yards and won the game.
2. Can either team establish the run?
There is no doubt that the Packers' rushing attack has improved significantly since they put rookie James Starks in the backfield. In Green Bay's three playoff victories, Starks touched the ball 73 times for 278 yards and a touchdown. The Packers will run the ball early, but I don't expect the Steelers to drop a safety down to support in run defense.
One Steelers player told me that they can stop the run with seven in the box. History backs up his stance. In their last 10 playoff games (9-1 record), the Steelers have limited opponents to 73 rushing yards per game. Pittsburgh allowed only two teams all season to rush for over 100 yards. I suspect the Packers really want to set up the play-action pass and need some early runs to make it work. The Steelers know it's coming.
As for the Steelers' run game, they have rediscovered their old formula. In two playoff games, Rashard Mendenhall had 20-plus carries per game and three rushing touchdowns. Pittsburgh needs to protect a patchwork offensive line and the run game helps. Look for Mendenhall to go right at the Packers' defense early, but keep in mind that the Falcons wanted to do that with Michael Turner and that fizzled.
3. QB escapability is a big issue
The Steelers' Brett Keisel was quick to tell me that the key to the game was Aaron Rodgers' run skills. He has taken off 12 times for 56 yards in the playoffs, and had two big runs against the Bears to his left that set up touchdowns. He out-ran Brian Urlacher for a big first down one time. Lawrence Timmons has to be ready for Rodgers' runs. Rodgers ran three times a year ago against the Steelers, and I expect closer to five to six runs on Super Sunday.
Roethlisberger is not the runner Rodgers is by any means, but he has crossed the line of scrimmage 17 times -- including sneaks in two playoff games -- and he seems ready, willing and able to move the chains with his feet. Roethlisberger told me this week, "whatever it takes." He might hit the green light five to six times as well, and Green Bay knows he's thinking about it. Expect the Packers' defense to rally to him and no one will be assigned to spy him.
4. Seeing a 'bunch' from Steelers
The bunch principle is when a team puts three eligible receivers together close to the offensive tackle. It usually forces defenses to make a zone-coverage check because of the routes that are available in the bunch. The Steelers know it's hard to send a fire-zone blitz to the bunch side and I expect no less than 15 snaps of the Steelers' bunch. They run the ball well behind the bunch and away from the bunch, and it is a perfect package for the crafty Hines Ward. Early in the game it is important for you to recognize the bunch and look to see Green Bay's answer to it.
5. Should the Packers spread it out?
It is easy to conclude a five wide receiver package spread out with three receivers to one side and two receivers on the other side could be a nightmare for the Steelers' defense. Against the Bears, Green Bay didn't go to the spread until the 19th pass play of the game and it worked well. The Steelers are expecting a lot more spread and their answer will be two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs.
Rodgers told me last summer how much he likes five-man protection schemes. It allows him to see the blitzer and get rid of the ball. Pittsburgh is intending to get after Rodgers in this package and his tackles -- Bryan Bulaga and Chad Clifton -- have to hold up against LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Look for Keisel to come out of his three-point stance and get into the passing lanes, while defensive end Ziggy Hood completes the rush unit. I don't think the Packers can win this game, or keep Rodgers upright, if they over-use the spread.
6. Can this game match the scoring of the 2009 matchup?
The simple answer is no, but they could come close. In 2009, there were 73 points scored, more than 1,000 yards of offense, 100 pass plays, and in the fourth quarter alone, there were four touchdowns and two field goals. Imagine 34 points in 15 minutes of action. Both teams have the quarterbacks and receivers to explode, but as CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Phil Simms said to me, "The Super Bowl is a whole different setting and every play is magnified."
How will the young players handle the moment? There will be anywhere from 10 to 15 rookies actively involved in this game.
7. Which QB weathers the storm?
Rodgers is going to have up-and-down moments in this game, but if his production in postseason situations in his short career are any kind of indication, he should do well.
Check out these numbers from Rodgers' postseason play: On third downs he has completed 22 of 33 -- or 67 percent -- of his passes. When he has found himself behind on the scoreboard, he has completed 39 of 52 passes -- or 75 percent -- of his passes, and he's thrown five touchdowns to no interceptions.
Roethlisberger has more postseason experience than Rodgers and two Super Bowl rings. He too has delivered under pressure, hitting 67 percent of his postseason third-down throws. When the Steelers have trailed, he has connected on 66 percent of his 118 throws for 10 touchdowns.
Roethlisberger clearly isn't rattled by sacks. He has been sacked 15 times in his last four playoff games and won them all. I asked him about it and his answer was, "I don't mind getting hit and it really doesn't affect me. I just get up and go again."
8. The matchup I fear most
Every NFL game comes down to one-on-one matchups across the field. Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings is going to find himself matched up with Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace will get his chance to beat Charles Woodson. Bulaga will have his hands full with Woodley. The key matchup for me is Steelers backup center Doug Legursky taking on the Packers' B.J. Raji. It might not show up in tackles or sacks, but Raji could turn into the disruptive force inside that knocks the Steelers' offense out of whack.
9. Where does experience factor in?
The Steelers have so much more experience on their roster when it comes to games of this magnitude. The Packers have a few players such as Woodson and 12-year veteran Donald Driver who know what it takes to control your emotions and perform on this stage.
I don't think the crowd will be as pro-Pittsburgh as it was in Detroit when it looked like a Steelers home game against the Seahawks, or like Raymond James Stadium in Tampa when Steelers fans far outnumbered Cardinals fans. Green Bay fans are heading to Dallas in droves and things should be equal in the noise department.
The Steelers are really counting on three young wide receivers, and Roethlisberger told me he would spend time with all three to get them calmed down and ready to play. The Packers don't have a lot of experience and have to hope that once the ball gets kicked off, they settle down.
10. More dangerous: Polamalu or Woodson?
The quarterbacks on both teams cannot come to the line of scrimmage and not know where Polamalu or Woodson are at all times. Take your eye off them once, and they will do so much damage as a blitzer, interceptor or free tackler. They both disguise what their real intentions are, and when you think they are in coverage, they blitz. When they look like they are rushing the quarterback, they drop into coverage. The way both defensive coordinators use them, it is almost impossible to avoid them. Both of them are going to make plays, but which one will make the most plays?