Can Clay Matthews and the Packers Bring Down Big Ben?

The clock is ticking down to Super Bowl XLV and we are getting excited for this classic match up!  We’ve taken a look at Pittsburgh’s offense, focusing on the offensive line and the adversity it has faced this past season.  We believe that the O-line must win the battle in the trenches and allow a rushing game to develop in order for the Steelers to win.   Standing in their way is Green Bay’s defensive guru – Dom Capers.  Let’s examine Capers, some key players and the potential strategies Green Bay will use to stop Big Ben and company.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is considered one of the most organized and thorough coaches in the league.  He keeps volumes of notes and is a master at devising schemes that confound opposing offenses.  When he coached at Pittsburgh in 1992, he and Dick LeBeau, the Steelers’ current defensive coordinator, created and installed the 3-4 zone defense that the Steelers use today.  On Sunday, Capers and LeBeau face off against each other in a battle of defensive masterminds.  There is no doubt that both defensive coordinators will devise clever, well designed game strategies.  The game will come down to which team best executes those game plans.

In 2009, Green Bay lost to Pittsburgh 37-36.  Roethlisberger had over 500 yards passing and 3 TDs in that game.  Capers and his pressure oriented defense sacked Big Ben 5 times, but it wasn’t enough to throw the big, physical QB off of his game.  Mike Wallace also had a huge impact on that game.  He had a TD on the first play from scrimmage, as well as the game winning TD in the final seconds of the game.   Capers will likely use that 2009 game as inspiration as he draws up his 3-4, zone-blitz scheme to contain the Steelers. 

In the 2009 contest, Capers didn’t pressure Big Ben as much in the final minutes of the game because his deep coverage was falling apart and Roethlisberger was picking them apart.  He was only able to rush 3 or 4 players in the final minutes and the opportunistic Wallace scored on a 19 yard TD pass.  The Packers have cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams to provide much better coverage than in the 2009 game, which should allow more Capers to rush more players towards the pocket and apply more pressure on Big Ben. 

Given Pittsburgh’s patchwork O-line due to injuries, Capers will look to exploit any suspected weaknesses.  With Pittsburgh standout center Maurkice Pouncey doubtful for Sunday, 6’ 2”, 337 pound nose tackle B.J. Raji is likely chomping at the bit.  Raji has become a YouTube phenomenon after he intercepted a pass in the NFC Championship game, returned it for a TD and proceeded to celebrate by dancing with his hands on his waist and wiggling his hips like he was in a hoola hoop contest.  Raji is the heaviest player to ever score a TD in post season play!  If Pouncey is out, Capers will look to disrupt his replacement – undrafted center Doug Legursky – and the dancing Raji may just be the one to cause that disruption.

Another potential mismatch exists between tenacious left outside linebacker Clay Matthews and Steelers right tackle Flozell Adams.  In last year’s game, Matthews annihilated Steelers tackle Max Starks as he sacked Big Ben twice and hit him hard three times.  Mathews also forced a fumble that eventually got overturned.  Big Ben is hard to bring down, but with Matthews’ success against him from last year, it is an advantage that Capers is sure to use, especially as he is lined up against the declining, older Adams, who is in his 13th year in the NFL.  Both Raji and Matthews will try to disrupt the pocket all game long, pressuring Big Ben and causing a potential game changing turnover in the process.

The Steelers know they will need to run the ball to win and will count on Rashard Mendenhall to carry the load.   In the AFC Championship game against the #3 ranked Jets rush defense, Mendenhall ground out 121 crucial yards.  The Packers have a run defense ranked a mediocre 18th in the league.  At first glance, that appears to give the Steelers a real advantage in running the ball.  However, Capers has deliberately designed his defense to allow opponents to gain 5 or 6 yards on 1st and 2nd down.  They use their nickel package, with 5 defensive backs on the field.  Capers’ strategy is that in passing to set up the run, this scheme gives the Packers a chance of creating an interception.  When it matters, Capers dials up a defense that stiffens to stop the run. 

Raji and tackle Ryan Pickett have been effective in stopping the inside run, which Mendenhall favors.  Matthews and linebacker A.J. Hawk will be called upon to stop Mendenhall from getting to the second line of defense.  In 2009, with much of the same defensive personnel in place, the Packers run defense ranked first in the league.  That is why the #18 ranking is so deceptive.  Capers has simply devised a different tactic that gives up short yardage on 1st or 2nd down, but can effectively stop the run on crucial third downs.

After looking at the matchup between the Steelers offense and Packers defense, we give the edge to Green Bay.  While Roethlisberger will undoubtedly make some clutch plays, we think Capers and his pressure oriented defense will slow down Big Ben’s scoring.  We also think turnovers by the Packers’ defense will play a pivotal role in the outcome of the game.  Clay Matthews missed the Associated Press’ coveted Defensive Player of the Year this season by the slimmest of margins (a mere 2 votes) to Super Bowl rival Troy Polamalu.  The relentless Matthews has something to prove and we feel he may very well be a critical factor in Super Bowl XLV.

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