Both teams protect the football
Len Pasquarelli breaks down five things to look for in Super Bowl XL, including whether Shaun Alexander can solve the Steelers' defense.
Here are five early things to look for in Super Bowl XL:
Sunday, Feb. 5, 6:18 p.m. ET, ABC
|Inside Super Bowl XL|
• X-factor: Don't underestimate the emotion with which Pittsburgh will go into this game. The Steelers vowed to get tailback Jerome Bettis to Detroit, his hometown, for Super Bowl XL, and they delivered on that promise. But with the game certain to be Bettis' final NFL appearance after 13 seasons and a career that eventually will land him in the Hall of Fame, merely getting their beloved leader to the title contest doesn't figure to be enough. The Steelers want to get Bettis, called "an inspiration to everyone in that locker room" by coach Bill Cowher, a Super Bowl ring as his retirement gift, and they will do everything they can to make that happen. There's also a sense that this team desperately wants to win for the Rooney family, which has been waiting since Super Bowl XIV to capture the elusive "one for the thumb," a fifth Super Bowl ring. No one in the Steelers' locker room buys into the "team of destiny" moniker some have tried to assign to the 2005 club. But this is a team that battled through adversity, had to win down the stretch simply to qualify for the playoffs, and then went on the road and defeated each of the AFC's top three seeds. So maybe there is a little bit of magic at work here.
• X-and-O factor: The game features some of the top coordinators on both sides of the ball and for both teams, but no one is hotter right now than Steelers offensive boss Ken Whisenhunt. The former NFL tight end has been dialed in the last three weeks, both in terms of game-planning and design and play-calling, and he deserves much of the credit for the diversity of a Pittsburgh attack that is more well-rounded than most people think. Whisenhunt has Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger playing exceedingly well and is putting him into plays where he can succeed. There are a lot of smart coaches in this game, but over the course of the playoffs, it has been Whisenhunt who has clearly been at the head of the class.
• Rx factor (health): Seattle: It's not believed the Seahawks sustained any major injuries in the NFC Championship Game. Wide receiver Bobby Engram, already playing with a mild ankle sprain, bruised his hip. Fellow wideout Darrell Jackson played with a lower back injury and defensive tackle Rocky Bernard with a sprained foot.
• Numbers cruncher: Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, one of the craftiest and most innovative schemers in the league, loves to get creative on third down. It is when he is most likely to bring a blitz from some unusual angle, to play with just two linemen on the field or to move his linebackers all over the place. But the Seattle offense ran just 192 third-down plays during the season, second fewest in the league, behind only Indianapolis (188). So the Seahawks' offense, which averaged 6.25 yards on first down in 2005, also second-best in the league, simply doesn't put itself in many tough situations. LeBeau might not be able to turn loose the outside linebacker duet of Joey Porter and Clark Haggans as much if the Seahawks are in manageable down-and-distance situations much of the day.
• The Seahawks will win if: Star tailback and league most valuable player Shaun Alexander rushes for 120 yards or more, the offense controls tempo with the run and the defense gets some pressure on Steelers QB Roethlisberger.
• The Steelers will win if: Roethlisberger remains hot, especially in the first half, and the Steelers jump out to a workable lead. It's very hard to play catch-up against the Steelers, because even though they have averaged just 61 yards rushing in the second halves of the last two games, after running for 100 yards in the second halves of their previous five contests, this is a team that knows how to put a game on ice if it gets a halftime edge.
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.
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.
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 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 here .
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