Defense wins championships.
That time-honored phrase could apply to both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers, participants in Super Bowl XLV in North Texas.
Far away in Washington, the Redskins hope that both defenses shine – they continue to draw inspiration from the 3-4 scheme used by both clubs.
Pittsburgh’s brand of the 3-4, operated by long-time coordinator Dick LeBeau, is the benchmark. The Steelers were the NFL’s second-ranked unit a year ago and a top five unit each of the last four seasons.
Under coordinator Dom Capers, a LeBeau disciple, Green Bay implemented the 3-4 in 2009 to surprising success. The Packers were ranked second overall in the NFL that year and followed it up with a fifth-best ranking last season.
The Redskins’ transition to the 3-4 last season did not go as well, of course.
They finished ranked 31st in the league.
“You see a lot of teams trying to run the 3-4, but they aren’t successful because of the personnel,” Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden told Sirius NFL Radio last week.
That’s the assignment for Mike Shanahan, Jim Haslett and company this offseason: search for personnel that fits their version of the 3-4.
Nose tackle and pass-rushing linebacker are obvious needs.
Those positions are points of emphasis for the Steelers and Packers.
The Steelers’ front is anchored by nose tackle Casey Hampton, a five-time Pro Bowler, with Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood at end. Hood replaces Aaron Smith, who is not expected to play in Super Bowl XLV due to a triceps injury.
The Packers have also built their defense around the front, with B.J. Raji emerging as a force at nose tackle this postseason. Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins and Howard Green – he was with the Redskins last preseason – provide a push at end. (Jenkins posted seven sacks.)
The three down lineman garner the attention of the opposing offensive line, allowing linebackers and occasionally safeties to penetrate into the backfield and disrupt the ball-carrier’s progress.
The Steelers’ set of linebackers may be the best with James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons on the inside and LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison on the outside. Add in strong safety Troy Polamalu, a six-time Pro Bowler, as a blitzer.
The Packers’ linebackers are less accomplished than the Steelers.
Outside pass rusher Clay Matthews is in just his second season in the NFL, but he has made an immediate impact. He has 23.5 sacks in just two years in Capers’ defense.
Containing Matthews appears to be the key for the Steelers on Sunday.
Remember Week 5, Redskins-Packers at FedExField? Matthews was dominant with 1.5 sacks, but he left the game with a hamstring injury in the third quarter and suddenly Washington’s passing game opened up. The Redskins rallied from a 13-3 deficit to win 16-13 in overtime.
A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop man the inside linebacker spots.
The other outside linebacker spot is uncertain. Rookie Frank Zombo started most of the season but has been sidelined the last six weeks with an injury. Erik Walden replaced Zombo but now he is slowed by a high ankle sprain.
Neither Zombo nor Walden are the caliber of Matthews, Harrison or Woodley as pass rushers, though.
Despite all the hype of quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers this week, defense figures to be the determining factor in Super Bowl XLV.
Both Roethlisberger and Rodgers have absorbed their share of hits this season. Roethlisberger was sacked 32 times while Rodgers was sacked 31 times, including twice by Redskins’ Brian Orakpo in Week 5. Rodgers even suffered a concussion vs. the Redskins on a hit by Jeremy Jarmon in overtime.
It stands to reason that whichever defense pressures the quarterback the best should be in position to win.
Pittsburgh has a more dominant front seven and the advantage of experience on their side. Plus the Steelers were ranked second in red zone defense, while the Packers were ranked 12th.
Give Super Bowl XLV to the Steelers by a 23-17 score – that’s the prediction here.
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