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Both teams protect the football

Here are five early things to look for in Super Bowl XL:

Seattle Seahawks vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

Sunday, Feb. 5, 6:18 p.m. ET, ABC
1. Don't expect many turnovers. In their five combined playoff games, three for the Steelers and two for the Seahawks, the offenses gave the ball away only twice each. And the quarterbacks, Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, had a combined one interception in 126 attempts. That came in Pittsburgh's divisional round victory at Indianapolis, when Roethlisberger was blindsided by defensive end Dwight Freeney and the ball squirted out of his hand to linebacker Cato June.

These are very precise quarterbacks, guys who can operate surgically, and who don't often make bad throws. Counting the three postseason games, Roethlisberger has thrown just 10 interceptions in 340 attempts, an excellent interception rate of 2.9 percent. Hasselbeck has been even better, with a miniscule pickoff rate of 2.6 percent, with nine interceptions in 341 passes, counting the playoffs. Hasselback set a league record for completion percentage during the month of September, and while he might not possess Roethlisberger's pure arm strength, he can get the ball in the small windows and with terrific touch.

Seattle committed just 17 turnovers during the regular season, second fewest in the league, and Pittsburgh had but 23 giveaways, the sixth fewest. So the fact the two Super Bowl teams did not allow easy scores in the playoffs is hardly surprising. Without the benefit of getting short fields with which to operate, the two offenses might have to sustain long drives, and that has been a strength for both clubs, but particularly for the Seahawks, who led the NFL during the regular season in possessions of 80 yards or more. The Steelers also have demonstrated, including recently in their three playoff wins, they can keep the football. Five of Pittsburgh 14 scoring drives have been of 10 snaps or more, and six have covered more than 60 yards. Notable, too, is the excellent job both quarterbacks do in distributing the ball. Both had completions to a dozen different receivers during the season. Hasselbeck threw touchdown passes to seven different teammates.

2. Seattle tailback and league most valuable player Shaun Alexander averaged 117.5 yards per game and 5.1 yards per carry, which helped the Seahawks rank No. 3 in rushing offense. He rang up 11 games with 100-plus yards and six games with 140 yards or more and authored 14 rushes of 20 or more yards. The Pittsburgh defense, which ranked No. 3 in the league against the rush, surrendered only 86.0 yards per outing. The Steelers gave up just 3.4 yards per carry, a league low, and surrendered just seven runs of 20 yards or more. Oh, yeah -- Pittsburgh has allowed just one individual 100-yard ball carrier in the last 32 games, counting playoffs. So something's gotta give, right, in the running game?

After netting just 94 combined rushing yards in the first three playoff games of his career, Alexander finally shook loose in Sunday's crushing victory over Carolina, running for 132 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries. It's easy to become frustrated running against the Pittsburgh 3-4 front, because the Steelers will change the attack angles and vary their run-blitzes. They'll also bring strong safety Troy Polamalu, the true key to the diversity of their defense, down into the box. What the Seahawks will have to avoid, and likely will be smart enough to, is abandoning the run too early. You certainly don't want to take the ball out of the hands of the NFL's most valuable player, even with a quarterback as accurate as Hasselbeck.

Look for a real dogfight in the trenches. The Seattle left-side tandem of tackle Walter Jones and guard Steve Hutchinson is seen as the best in the league, and justifiably so. A big key figures to be the matchup of Seattle center Robbie Tobeck and Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton. It's difficult to run on the Steelers unless your center can get some movement on Hampton, a guy who will not make many tackles himself but who absolutely eats up blockers and permits the Steelers' linebackers to flow to the football. Tobeck is a savvy snapper, a very smart player, and a guy who uses his hands well. He'll have to use his quickness to get into Hampton's body and stay locked on to him for the Seahawks to be effective with the run.

Seattle ran the ball a mind-boggling 51 times in Sunday's conference championship game. If they do that in Super Bowl XL, it means Tobeck is having a very strong day, indeed. And if you really want to see some head-banging collisions, follow the fullbacks, Mack Strong of the Seahawks and Dan Kreider of the Steelers. These are two of the most selfless players in the NFL, tremendous lead-blockers, and guys who will be having train-wreck collisions with linebackers on virtually every play.

3. The Seattle and Pittsburgh defenses ranked first and third, respectively, in sacks during the season, and both teams will bring blitzes from about every angle imaginable. Despite not having a single defender with double-digit sacks (end Bryce Fisher led the team with nine), Seattle totaled 50 takedowns and got at least one sack from 12 different players. Pittsburgh was even more diverse, getting sacks from 15 different defenders and totaling 47 sacks for the year.


Both Pittsburgh outside linebackers, Joey Porter on the weakside and Clark Haggans on the strongside, do an exceptional job of setting the edge in the Steelers' pass rush schemes. The excitable Porter, who led the Steelers during the regular season with 10½ sacks, is really on a roll. Porter has 9½ sacks in the last nine games, counting the three playoff contests, and has four sacks in postseason play. Three times in the last five games, Porter has collected two or more sacks, and in Sunday's AFC Championship Game, he was virtually unblockable. Porter can be a streak-shooter and if you allow him a fast start, it's like tossing chum in the water.

Sunday, he had two sacks, two hurries and a forced fumble in the first 1½ quarters. It will be an intriguing matchup, with Porter likely to spend much of the day going against Seattle left tackle Jones, a superb pass protector many feel has supplanted Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Pace as the league's premier blindside bodyguard.

4. There isn't a single receiver on either roster who had 70 catches during the season or who registered 1,000 yards. But don't underestimate the collective clever nature of the receivers from the two teams. The Seattle starting tandem of Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram suffered from injuries, especially in the first half of the season, and had only three touchdown catches apiece. But both are technical wide receivers, more quick than fast, and very nifty with double-move routes. Jackson is usually the wide receiver to whom Hasselbeck most often looks to bail him out, but with Jackson injured so much in 2005, it was Engram who led the way, with 67 catches. Engram, once one of the premier slot receivers in the NFL, became a starter this year and still knows how to find a soft spot in a zone and settle into it.

Hines Ward remains the top Pittsburgh wide receiver, and he led the Steelers with 69 receptions for 975 yards and 11 touchdowns. That's a lot of touchdown grabs for a team that only totaled 21 touchdown passes in the regular season.


Keep an eye, though, on some wild card difference-makers among the receivers in Super Bowl XL. Both tight ends, Pittsburgh rookie Heath Miller and former first-rounder Jerramy Stevens of Seattle, are guys capable of getting over top of safeties and making plays deep up the seams. Regarded as a first-round bust until this year, Stevens finally put his various off-field problems behind him and performed well, with 45 catches and five touchdown grabs. Miller is terrific at creating separation in the red zone, and he has become a favorite target for Roethlisberger in close. The Steelers love to go to an empty alignment inside the opposition's 10-yard line, and that characteristically creates a favorable matchup for Miller, usually against a safety or linebacker.

Just a hunch, but look for the No. 3 wide receivers from each team to have major roles. Joe Jurevicius of the Seahawks really bailed the team out this season when both Jackson and Engram were out of the lineup. The gangly Jurevicius, a long-strider who presents a huge target when he comes across the middle, scored 10 touchdowns on 55 catches, and the early bet here is that he will be a tough matchup for the Steelers' secondary. Steelers wideout Cedrick Wilson, who complained earlier in the year about not getting the ball enough, has become a solid player of late. Wilson has deceptive deep speed, is really nifty at running the deep out patterns that Roethlisberger throws so well, and has come up big in the playoffs, with two touchdown grabs in three games. Wilson had just 26 receptions during the year, but eight of them were for 20-plus yards, and four were for 40 yards or more. He has three catches of 40-plus yards in the postseason.

5. Neither defense features great turn-and-run cornerbacks, and Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor looked lost at times on Sunday, when he lost the ball on two straight plays in a Denver touchdown drive. The left cornerback spot for Seattle, where Kelly Herndon and Andre Dyson have split time as the starter, was a problem area much of the season. So expect to see the very active safeties from both teams get involved in every facet of the respective defensive schemes, including coverage.


The headliner of the bunch, of course, is Polamalu, the Steelers' do-it-all safety, who never ceases to amaze with his unique mix of athleticism and power. Polamalu wasn't as conspicuous in Sunday's conference title game as he had been the week before in the divisional round, and he was beaten for a score when he allowed Denver's Ashley Lelie to get on top of him, but he also made a jaw-dropping play when he authored a tackle while being knocked on his back. Free safety Chris Hope doesn't get nearly the attention Polamalu merits. But the Steelers move Polamalu around so much, and play so much Cover 3 in the secondary, that Hope is always counted on to cover a lot of ground between the hashes.

The Seattle tandem of Michael Boulware and Marquand Manuel is certainly unheralded. But Boulware, a former college linebacker with great instincts, made the switch to safety a year ago as a rookie and harbors a big-play mentality. It won't be surprising if one of the safeties makes a game-changing play in Super Bowl XL.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.