Super Bowl preview
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While the Super Bowl officiating crew is comprised of an "all-star" team of refs, Walt Anderson will be the head official. During the 2010 season, Anderson called a total of 200 penalties (including declined and offsetting) for a total of 1,346 yards. That was about league average last season; Tony Corrente led the league with 261 calls, and Pete Morelli threw the fewest flags with 176. Anderson was the head official in the Week 6 game featuring the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns, a game in which Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison was fined $75,000 for a hit on Browns receiver Mohamed Massaquoi but was not flagged in the game.
The only penalty having to do with Harrison's allegedly egregious contact was on Browns center Alex Mack, for kicking the football in frustration over the lack of penalties. Mack got himself a delay of game call for that one. Anderson called seven unnecessary roughness penalties during the season, which was pretty far down the line. Corrente led the league with 22, while Alberto Riveron and John Parry tied for the fewest with four. Something tells me that the league will have a little talk with Anderson about calling those hits a little bit closer.
Anderson also called one game in which the Green Bay Packers played; their Week 16 contest against the New York Giants. In that game, the Pack saw just three flags - one on special teams, and two defensive flags. One of those was against cornerback Charles Woodson for illegal contact, and another against cornerback Tramon Williams for defensive pass interference. In previous years, the Packers' secondary was known for drawing penalties because of the man coverage and physical nature of the back four, but they managed to clean things up in 2010 - just seven pass interference calls and five illegal contact penalties.
The Steelers' depleted offensive line led the league in holding penalties with 35, while Green Bay's line had just 14 holds. The Packers were more prone to false starts with 21, while the Steelers had just 14. Anderson called the third-lowest number of holds with 31, and the third-highest number of false starts (42, tied with Scott Green).
These are two of the most evenly-matched teams you'll see in a Super Bowl. According to Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics, the Steelers ranked second overall, while the Packers ranked third. Pittsburgh ranked fifth in total offense (third in passing and 14th in rushing), while Green Bay ranked seventh (sixth in passing and 11th in rushing). On defense, these are the gold standard 3-4 squads - Pittsburgh ranked first (second against the pass, first against the run) and Green Bay ranked second (first against the pass, 16th against the run). Both defenses are top five in overall efficiency when covering No. 1 and No. 2 receivers; Pittsburgh's only real weakness in coverage is against third receivers and running backs, and Green Bay's Achilles' heel is against tight ends (they rank 22nd).
Neither team is specifically effective when running the ball; this could very well be a re-run of Super Bowl XLIII, when the Steelers and Cardinals were beating each other's brains in with quick-strike passing attacks late in the game. Down the stretch, that passing game could be a huge factor from an efficiency perspective -- no quarterbacks had higher completion percentages in the fourth quarter of games than Roethlisberger (66.3) and Rodgers (66.0) in the regular season.
Down and Distance
If there's one place in which the Steelers have a huge advantage, it's on third-and-short; Green Bay ranks 24th in efficiency on offense, and the Steelers' defense ranks sixth in these situations. The Packers' defense ranks 11th in third-and-short, but Pittsburgh ranks second in those defensive situations. Third-and-long is a different story; both offenses and defenses are top-10. But again, the Steelers have an advantage, because their quarterback is a freak in these tougher situations. Roethlisberger led the league in converting situations of third-and-8 or longer (23 of 51 possible conversions) through the air, while Rodgers converted just 14 of 49 situations.
Both defenses love to rush the passer, and both quarterbacks have no problem being as efficient - or MORE efficient - when they're pressured. Of all NFL quarterbacks, Rodgers has had the highest Football Outsiders efficiency rating over the last two years when pressured, and Roethlisberger is right up there with him. And when faced with five rushers? Each quarterback averaged 8.2 yards per play, according FO's game charting. Rodgers was even more effective when facing six rushers (8.6 yards per play, while Roethlisberger dropped to 6.1). These are two guys you blitz at your own peril.
But those quarterbacks will be tested with three of the league's greatest pass rushers. Two of those pass rushers reside on the outside of the Steelers' front seven - Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for 49 pass pressures, which led the league among duos. Clay Matthews had 17 pressures on his own, which is especially impressive as he doesn't have a bookend as Harrison and Woodley both do.
Green Bay definitely has the edge in the secondary (Troy Polamalu very much excepted), which is generally where those picking the Packers to win point when they talk about the biggest game advantage. Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson matches Polamalu for every-down, every-scheme intensity and value; like Polamalu, he will do everything from blitz at the line to cover deep quarters. Woodson's greatest improvement in 2010 was as a pass-rusher; he amassed eight passes pressured to Polamalu's six.
The shutdown corner on the Packer's side is Tramon Williams, and his skill set is the one thing the Steelers can't really match. While the Packers have Woodson and Wililams, the Steelers have William Gay (who was beaten for three touchdowns against the Patriots in the regular season by rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski).
Don't be fooled by the fact that the Packers come into this game as the second sixth-seed ever to make a Super Bowl; since James Starks got the team's rushing attack on pace just enough for Rodgers to run play action, the Packers' offense has been fairly amazing, and their defense is complex and volatile enough to give Rodgers a relative sense of comfort when he hits the field at Cowboys stadium. Both defenses run similar schemes -- create confusion up front, disguise coverages, and blitz from everywhere. Both offenses lead with the pass, though the Packers believe more in the yards-after-catch philosophy and the Steelers love to go deep.
The Packers would be best advised to go after the ball in Roethlisberger's hand as opposed to the quarterback himself and hope that the Big Ben who gave up 10 fumbles in 2008 could make a return to form. For the Steelers to win, taking full advantage of the biggest mismatch in their favor (Woodley against rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga) is crucial.
Add me to the list of folks who believe that Green Bay's secondary will be the deciding factor (Woodson will get an MVP award to seal his Hall of Fame credentials), but this game really could go either way. All the numbers point to a real thriller.