DALLAS -- Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has probably spent countless hours in the film room poring over tape of the Pittsburgh Steelers in search of a solution for their dynamic offense.
Although Capers likely focused his efforts on their most recent contests initially, he will certainly pop in a tape of their Week 15 matchup from last season prior to putting the finishing touches on his game plan.
In that game, Ben Roethlisberger completed 29-of-46 passes for 503 yards and three scores while leading the Steelers to a 37-36 win. He distributed the ball to seven different receivers and averaged a hefty 10.9 yards per attempt on the day. More importantly, he guided the Steelers on an 11-play, 86-yard drive that culminated in a 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace with no time remaining on the clock.
Given the mind-boggling production that the Steelers produced against Capers' vaunted defense, there are a host of lessons that can be learned from revisiting that tape, and the Packers' success in Super Bowl XLV could be tied to his findings.
Before we can delve into the specifics of that game, it is important to look at how each squad has evolved since their meeting a year ago.
The Steelers were a pass-heavy unit that threw nearly 58 percent of the time. Roethlisberger served as the driving force, and Pittsburgh used a variety of spread formations to create big-play opportunities.
This season, however, the offense has taken a more balanced approach (47.4-percent run) with Rashard Mendenhall becoming a more prominent part of the game plan. He rushed for 1,273 yards with 13 touchdowns during the regular season, while averaging 20.2 carries a game. He has continued to be a focal point of the offense during the postseason, averaging 23.5 rush attempts per game.
With Mendenhall in the backfield as a credible threat, the Steelers have incorporated more play-action passes into the game plan. While they still use a host of three- and four-receiver sets, they also feature a number of multiple tight end packages with run-heavy formations.
For the Packers, their defense has continued to evolve in Capers' second season at the helm. He has added more packages and wrinkles to their zone-blitz scheme, while upgrading the defensive personnel to get more speed, quickness and athleticism on the field. Sam Shields, in particular, has emerged as another dynamic cover corner, and his ability to hold up outside has allowed Charles Woodson to thrive as a versatile sub-defender in the slot.
Desmond Bishop has also been a vital addition. He is a physical defender capable of snuffing out tight ends with his rugged play at the line of scrimmage. He has blanketed Brent Celek, Tony Gonzalez and Greg Olsen in the postseason, and his ability to neutralize the tight end is critical to the Packers' game plan.
Although the aforementioned changes will make some of the information gained from revisiting the film irrelevant, there are a ton of lessons that Capers will use in prepping for Super Bowl XLV.
The first objective of the Packers' game plan should be the elimination of the deep ball. In their last matchup, Roethlisberger connected on eight passes over 25 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace on the Steelers' first play. The barrage of bombs slowed the Packers' aggressiveness and allowed Roethlisberger to efficiently pick apart the underneath areas of their coverage.
Granted, the Packers were playing with a backup cornerback (Jarrett Bush) in their nickel package, but the inability to keep the ball from flying over their heads prevented them from getting off the field in critical situations. However, that problem should be remedied by Shields. His exceptional cover skills have allowed the Packers to suffocate their opponents with press coverage.
With Woodson and Tramon Williams joining Shields in the nickel package, Green Bay should have better success against a Steelers' receiving corps that features several speed receivers (Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders) and a crafty veteran in Hines Ward. Although the speed and quickness of the quartet could pose a problem, the physical and aggressive nature of Woodson, Williams and Shields could neutralize their impact, and force Roethlisberger to go elsewhere with the ball.
If Capers is able to slow down the Steelers' receivers with press coverage, he should anticipate seeing a lot of 'bunch' or cluster alignments from a variety of personnel packages. By aligning two or more receivers in close proximity, the Steelers eliminate the possibility of using press extensively, because the potential for picks or rub routes often force the defender to back away from the line of scrimmage. This allows at least one receiver to get a free release, and it often leads to big plays when defenders get confused on their assignments.
The Steelers have given opponents problems with their 'bunch' passing game this year, and the Packers didn't appear to have a solid solution for it in their last meeting. Hines Ward and Heath Miller repeatedly worked open on short crossing routes from the formation, and their ability to get open consistently gave Roethlisberger reliable options on third down.
To combat this tactic, the Packers will have to employ several different methods. Capers can roll coverage to the 'bunch', and use Cover 2 principles to force short throws or check downs. He can also use switch concepts, which allow the defenders to play "in and out" on peripheral receivers with the point man locked by a press corner at the line of scrimmage. This would allow the Packers to play tighter on the short routes from the 'bunch' package and eliminate some of the easy throws that are available against zone coverage.
The final objective of Capers' game plan must involve getting consistent pressure on the quarterback. Roethlisberger's size, strength and mobility make it tough to sack him, but a steady diet of pressure disrupts the rhythm of the Steelers' passing game. Last season, the Packers used a "Psycho" package (one defensive lineman, five linebackers and five defensive backs) to generate pressure on an assortment of overload blitzes. Although they haven't used that package much down the stretch, their success with the "24" (two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs) has the potential to be very effective.
With four linebackers on the field, the Packers are able to use a variety of pre-snap disguises to confuse protection count, and the extra defensive backs allow them to match up evenly in man or zone pressures. Also, the versatile coverage and blitzing skills of Woodson could make it difficult for the Steelers.
Capers could also fall back into some eight-man zones with only three rushers and hope that Clay Matthews is able to get home off the edge. He soundly whipped the Steelers' tackles last season (two sacks), and enjoys a sizable advantage against both of Pittsburgh's edge blockers. If he is able to get loose off the edge on a consistent basis, the Packers will have the flexibility to put a blanket over their spread formations.
The Packers have had one of the league's top defenses this season, but they will need to be at their best to slow down Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers. With a notebook of lessons learned from their meeting a year ago, Capers might enter Super Bowl XLV with a game plan that leads to a world title.