According to the odds makers Super Bowl XLV between the Packers and Steelers is expected to be a tight contest decided by less than a field goal with Green Bay a slight favorite. To get a better handle on what to look for in the game Buffalobills.com got a firsthand take on both teams from Bills safety George Wilson and center Geoff Hangartner.
Since the Bills faced both the AFC and NFC champions during the regular season both Hangartner and Wilson had a good grasp of where the strengths lie for each of the Super Bowl participants.
For Green Bay their offense has largely been about their passing game, which ranked fifth best in the league. But Wilson believes the 'X' factor that has emerged in the postseason makes them even more potent.
"They have big play capability at every skill position," said Wilson. "They have three great wide receivers in (Greg) Jennings, (Donald) Driver and (James) Jones. All of them can make the big catch and (Aaron) Rodgers has the utmost faith in all those guys. But in the playoffs they've had a consistent running game where teams can't necessarily just play the pass. James Starks has given them a bit of a consistent run threat."
Wilson also tips his hat to Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and his version of the West Coast scheme as a main reason for the unit's success.
"They get the ball out of Aaron Rodgers' hands quick," he said. "High percentage throws and he's athletic enough where they can move the pocket with boots and sprint outs. Then this postseason he's shown an ability to scramble when the coverage has bottled up his receivers. He's been able to pull the ball down and make some big plays with his feet. His threat is not just with his arm. The Steelers have a big challenge ahead them."
When the Bills faced Green Bay in Week 2 Wilson said the plan was to win first and second down holding the Packers to minimal gains. Obviously that didn't happen as Green Bay rolled up almost 350 yards and 34 points against Buffalo.
"They do a great job of getting three yards here and four yards there on first and second down, so whenever they get to third down its third and short or third and manageable," Wilson said. "To have a chance against the Packers you have to put them in third and long situations so you can cut down on their play calls. They have so many threats and so many plays that when you leave them in 3rd-and-2 or 3rd-and-3 their whole playbook is wide open. It all comes back to down and distance on third down."
Green Bay's defense also has big play ability as evidenced by their 47 sacks, 32 takeaways and plus-10 turnover differential, which ranked second, sixth and fourth in the league respectively.
"I think it starts with Clay Matthews which isn't going to surprise anybody," said Hangartner of Green Bay's defense. "Obviously he had a great season and finished second for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Everything starts with him, but they're solid everywhere. They've got a great bunch of big guys that move well with (Cullen) Jenkins, (B.J.) Raji and (Ryan) Pickett. They're all good football players."
Unlike vanilla 3-4 defenses like Cleveland and New England, the Packers are very varied in their 3-4 approach.
"They do a lot of different stuff," said Hangartner. "They won't stand still and just let you block them. They're all over the place. They really mix it up and they get really complicated especially on third down. They'll have one guy down and everybody muddling around and walking around. They'll have three linebackers all standing in the middle and then at the snap of the ball they all run in different directions so identifying who you've got can be a little difficult at times."
Buffalo's line general says staying out of third and medium to third and long is a plus for any offense against the Packers, but even when teams can do that it's still tough to convert against Green Bay because their cover guys on the back end are a quality group as well. Their 24 interceptions were second bets in football this past season.
Running on Green Bay's stout front seven to stay out of third and long often proves difficult as well, but the Bills think Pittsburgh will try and pound it anyway on offense.
"With that stable of running backs they're going to run that ball consistently," said Wilson of the Steelers offense. "They're going to try to establish that line of scrimmage. With Pittsburgh they try to impose their will on you with the run game. With the Steelers you have to win the line of scrimmage. You have to stop them on first and second down with that run game because they do so much boot and play action off the run that if you take that run away it nullifies those play fakes and play action."
Despite a bevy of injuries on their offensive line throughout the season, Pittsburgh persevered and finished the regular season with the league's 10th best rushing attack. With the emergence of young receivers like Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown the Steelers have become more balanced.
"With Mike Wallace on the outside for the Steelers they have just as much big play capability as the Packers do," said Wilson. "With Wallace, one catch from anywhere on the field he can take it the distance and change the momentum and swing of the game."
Wilson believes combining Wallace with security blanket type receivers like Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller, Ben Roethlisberger has enough options to do damage in the passing game when he's on the move trying to extend plays.
"When they get in those passing situations that's when Ben is at his best because he's a big guy, but he's athletic enough to avoid those rushers coming off the edge or coming right at him and he's strong enough to shed a guy that wraps him up and still deliver the ball down the field to a receiver," Wilson said.
As for Pittsburgh's defense it's similar to that of Green Bay's in terms of production as they finished atop the league in sacks with one more (48) than the Packers (47). They also stood third in the league in takeaways (35), second in turnover differential ( 17) and fifth in interceptions (21). For Hangartner the comparable production makes sense knowing that Packers' defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau have a prior working history.
"They came up with a lot of the same stuff so the defenses come from the same mold and philosophy," said Hangartner. "With the Steelers they seem to have the same guys that have been playing in that scheme for a long time. They have a lot of continuity which allows them to really mix things up."
Not surprisingly, Hangartner says the priority list with Pittsburgh defensively begins with James Harrison though he's not the only concern.
"You see Troy Polamalu standing over the center at times and you think he's going to blitz and then he drops back and covers the middle of the field," Hangartner said. "Troy Polamalu is probably, if not the best, one of the three best players in the league in my opinion. The things he can do allows them to really give you some funky looks."
Hangartner says LeBeau gets really unpredictable with his play calls when it's 3rd-and-6 or more.
"That's when Pittsburgh will start rolling out some crazy stuff," he said. "They'll walk guys around too and have guys standing in blitzes where you wouldn't think they would be and then they scatter all over the place. Both of those teams will do some strange stuff defensively."
Buffalo's special teams captain, Wilson gave the Steelers a slight edge on special teams as well.
And both Hangartner and Wilson believe the winner in Super Bowl XLV will be the one that's most effective in extending possessions.
"I think it's going to come down to whoever can keep drives going and convert third downs," Hangartner said. "It wouldn't shock me if Green Bay went to a bunch of four and five wide stuff to try to throw on Pittsburgh. That's what we did when we played them. We did a lot of empty (backfield) and threw it a bunch and it wouldn't surprise me if Green Bay did that. But whichever team possesses the ball and converts third downs is going to win the game."
Both also believe the Steelers will prevail in the end due largely to their experience in the big game.
"It's a factor and they've been there before and know what to expect and how to move past the distractions of the week leading up to the game," said Wilson. "The Steelers have been there. For Green Bay I feel like the veteran leadership that they have in place doesn't give Pittsburgh a full advantage. Some of the Packers key players are veteran guys, but as a whole the Steelers have played together and been in more big games and they've been on the Super Bowl stage time and again."