Super Bowl 48  

 

Expect teams to study, copy Packers' plan of attack vs. Steelers

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Every Super Bowl has an impact on the following season. The Patriots' dramatic win over the Rams put a serious dent in the "greatest show on turf." Teams studied Bill Belichick's defensive strategy that utilized a ton of man-under-two-deep coverages, daring Kurt Warner to run with the ball. St. Louis' scoring machine had been slowed down, and it left a lasting impact on that offense going forward.

The Steve Spagnuolo-designed Giants' defense that knocked off the undefeated Patriots a few years later also changed the game. Teams had struggled to generate a pass rush on Tom Brady prior to that game and many teams applied the lessons from that contest to modify their defensive approach against New England. Since then, the Patriots have turned themselves into a horizontal passing attack and so the chess match continues.

The Saints had a pressure defense that was capable of disrupting Peyton Manning just enough to beat the favored Colts last year. Every defensive coordinator in the NFL studied that game tape with an eye on blitzing Manning more often.

This year's Super Bowl could be the most revealing of all, because the two defensive coordinators knew each other so well. They had to have shared some secrets about their scheme with their offensive coordinators down the hall. The end result just might be a blueprint for attacking the famous zone blitz scheme that wreaks havoc on so many teams.

I recently spoke with an NFL offensive coordinator and we discussed how the Packers' offensive plan against the Steelers might have taught all of us about how to attack that defense. Granted, having a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers makes everything look easier than it really is, but the concepts Green Bay employed will no doubt become a major part of playing the Steelers in the future. Phil Simms, who broke down the coaches' tape, told me, "the Packers really didn't do a lot of different things in the game. They simply spread their offense out and ran about three different pass plays and it worked."

As a former NFL head coach explained, "the Spread offense is here to stay in the NFL, especially after what the Packers got done in the Super Bowl. And quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert are headed to the NFL next year with 'spread' offense experience which will only perpetuate the spread in pro football."

The spread offense has a few formational variations and the Packers used them all. They employed a "3 by 2" empty principle with Rodgers in the shotgun, three receivers to one side of the field and two receivers to the other side. They used a '4 by 1' principle with four receivers to one side and a single receiver opposite. They used a single back in the backfield occasionally and they started the game out in shotgun with a running back and a tight end in the backfield for protection reasons. There were reasons for all those variations, but the philosophy was all the same and that was to isolate Steeler defenders.

Keep in mind, these teams played in 2009 with the same quarterbacks and defensive coordinators and that game had 73 points scored, 100 pass plays called and over 1,000 yards of offense. The Super Bowl saw 87 pass plays called and 56 points scored. Most of the offensive damage, especially by the Packers, was from the shotgun. Green Bay ran 29 plays from the shotgun formation, and run just once, while getting sacked once. The Steelers just couldn't get enough pressure on Rodgers.

Pittsburgh doesn't have great cornerbacks and relies on its pressure scheme to disrupt the QB before he can get after the defensive backs. Green Bay isolated all of the defensive backs and in many situations loosened up the outside linebackers just enough that the passes were away before James Harrison or LaMarr Woodley could get home. William Gay, Bryant McFadden and even Troy Polamalu were all on islands against capable receivers like Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Donald Driver.

Rodgers didn't really even have to use his feet to scramble and run for first downs like he had done in the previous playoff games. I agree with Trent Dilfer, who told me, "If the Packer receivers just held on to the slant routes Aaron stuck in there, he would have easily thrown for over 400 yards."


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The Packers set a record for the fewest rushing attempts by a team to win a Super Bowl and they might have locked in on the only way to move the ball against the mighty Steeler defense. Phil Simms thought the simplicity of the spread pass attack made it easy for Rodgers to get the ball out of his hand. I was impressed with the fact Rodgers targeted 10 different receivers. The spread made it tough for the Steelers to get after Rodgers and as Brad Childress, the former Vikings head coach said to me, "there was a time when teams thought of using spread empty sets four or five times a game, but that number is certainly on the rise."

Dick LeBeau knew going into this game that Aaron Rodgers had the best passer rating (89) in the regular season against pressure calls. He also knew, however, that if he sat back and played coverage, he would see the guy with the 103 rating, so he went with his plan.

The problem was that when he looked at the NFC Championship Game against the Bears, he saw a Packer offense that used a lot of two-back sets with a very conservative pass attack.

It wasn't until the 19th pass play in Chicago that the Packers went to the spread and hit Jordy Nelson down the seam. That turned out to be a quick glimpse at what Mike McCarthy had in mind for the Steelers from the beginning of the game. Now you have to wonder how many teams are going to change their approach to playing the Steelers in 2011.

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