- Eric Allen, NFL studio analyst
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Editor's note: Each day this week, Eric Allen answers a question surrounding the Super Bowl matchup between the Seahawks and Steelers.
Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET)
Saturday, Feb. 4
Who will win Super Bowl XL?
The past couple of years, we've been lucky to have close, tightly contested Super Bowls. This season's game will continue the streak of great contests in the ultimate game.
I've looked over every fact over the past two weeks and the Seattle Seahawks lead in enough of the key categories that I feel that they are going to be the winners. Among the categories the Seahawks have an edge in are the running game and passing game. Let's take a quick look at why I favor them in each matchup.
• The passing game is where the Hawks probably have the most decisive edge of the three categories. They have more and better options for Matt Hasselbeck to throw to (Jerramy Stevens, Bobby Engram, Darrell Jackson and Joe Jurevicius compared to Antwaan Randle El, Heath Miller and Hines Ward) and they have more faith in their passing game. The Steelers have showed much more faith in the passing game in the playoffs, but that's because they were forced to do so because defenses were keying in on the run.
• In the running game, the Seahawks have the advantage because teams haven't found a way to stop them unlike the Steelers' running game. While they may not run as effectively as they would against other teams, the Seahawks will run the ball well.
• This Seahawks' offensive line is very physical and athletic. The group does a great job of engaging defenders quickly, getting them out of the way and pushing up field to look for more guys to block.
This is going to be a great game and a great end to a terrific season.
Prediction: Seahawks 27, Steelers 21.
Friday, Feb. 3
How will Hasselbeck play?
There's been so much talk about Ben Roethlisberger this week in terms of how well he's playing and what kind of endorsements he'll receive if the Steelers win that I have to believe that Matt Hasselbeck is sitting back just stewing about the short shrift he's receiving. Let's state something right now: Hasselbeck is a heckuva quarterback having a great season. He's been phenomenal this year and is a large part of the reason why this team is in the Super Bowl and why Shaun Alexander is the MVP.
It seems like it's taken a while for Hasselbeck to come around and get to this elite level, but that's only because he's currently been compared to second-year phenom Roethlisberger. Hasselbeck has played at a high level for several years now, but hadn't been able to back it with stats or playoff victories prior to this season in large part because his receivers had serious difficulty hanging onto the ball.
This season that wasn't the case as he's handled the game beautifully and led this team to the promised land. He's going to play well in this game and make the right plays at the right time. I doubt he's going to be frazzled by the Steelers' zone blitz because he's going to be exceptionally prepared by one of the best offensive playcallers in the game.
Thursday, Feb. 2
How important is Jackson?
Darrell Jackson is one of the most important players on the field for the Seattle Seahawks. He missed most of the season due to injury and has somehow rebounded to play exceptionally well in the playoffs. So far in two games, he's caught 15 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns. That's after only catching 38 passes for 482 yards and three touchdowns in six games of the regular season.
Jackson has elevated his game during these playoffs and Matt Hasselbeck obviously has a great deal of faith in Jackson's abilities. In the Super Bowl, his speed is going to be a big factor because the Steelers' secondary can't handle him if he's able to go over the top of the defense. He gives this team a deep threat and while they don't run a lot of go routes, he's going to see at least one or two deep balls in the game to make sure the Steelers respect the deep ball. If they don't do that then Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu will be able to concentrate mainly on the run.
The only worry that an observer has to have about Jackson is if his case of the drops will return. In years past, Jackson has had serious problems holding onto the ball, but this season that hasn't seemed to be a problem for him. That probably has a lot to do with the presence of veteran receiver Joe Jurevicius. This receiving corps has been maligned the previous two seasons because of their problems holding onto the ball and signing Jurevicius and not re-signing Koren Robinson was a sign that the organization wanted sure-handed receivers who weren't a problem in the locker room. Obviously that sends a message to the rest of the team that they have to shape up or be shipped out. Jackson has responded by playing his butt off and now finds himself in a Super Bowl facing a secondary that he has the ability to exploit.
Wednesday, Feb. 1
How can Seattle find a way to neutralize Polamalu's impact on defense?
Troy Polamalu has been everywhere defensively for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season and especially during the playoffs. During the season he accounted for 92 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble and two interceptions, but already through three games in the playoffs he has 19 tackles, half a sack and one interception. As impressive as those numbers are, they still don't show the level of confusion he imparts on opposing offenses.
Polamalu has done an amazing job of disguising his blitzes and limiting opposing quarterbacks' pre-snap knowledge in terms of where he's going to be and what he's going to do when the ball is snapped. The 'Hawks are going to have their hands full with him because he can act as a linebacker, fill holes and deliver punishment to the ball carrier. He's also disruptive in the passing game because he could blitz the quarterback or jump the out route of an inside receiver on any play.
In order to combat Polamalu's big-play potential, the Hawks are going to have to stay balanced offensively and prevent from coming over reliant on one part of their game where he can start guessing what they are going to do. Another key is to run a lot of fake reads, bootlegs and play-action passes to freeze him and stop his aggressiveness. The only problem with that option is that it's so far from what the Hawks like to do that it puts them in the quandary of having to choose between effectively limiting one of the best defenders on the field or allowing him to roam free. If it was a regular-season game, I'd probably say go for it and change up your offensive personality a bit, but this is the Super Bowl and it's difficult to abandon what's worked so well for a team on the hope that it limits one player's effectiveness.
The final option for this team is to force him to have to play like a cornerback by forcing him into coverage with some four-receiver sets. One of his few weaknesses is that while he can stay with a receiver's route for a little while, he's not nearly as effective if he's facing double moves and things like that from opposing receivers. It would also open up the opportunity for some big plays in the passing game.
Tuesday, Jan. 31
Can Alexander handle the Steelers' physical nature?
There's no doubt that Shaun Alexander will take some huge shots from Casey Hampton, Chris Hope, Joey Porter and Troy Polamalu. The Steelers have done a tremendous job this season of making sure that opposing running backs feel the pain of their position. Now it's Alexander's turn to prove that he can take one of those big hits and get up and hit the middle again and again without faltering. As the MVP, there is even more pressure on Alexander to raise his game in this Super Bowl. He's expected to take every hit and laugh it off, and that is definitely easier said than done.
He will lower his shoulder and run the ball up the middle and absorb those hits because he's so strong and determined. He's shown a tremendous amount of determination this season as he's helped lead the Seahawks to this game. I believe him when he says the awards don't mean nearly as much to him as the chance to win this Super Bowl. He'll bring his "A" game and handle the physical pounding the Steelers are going to hand out.
Monday, Jan. 30
How do you stop Shaun Alexander?
It's very hard to stop a player like Alexander because he's an incredibly talented running back who can hurt defenses by either running in between the tackles or by bouncing it to the outside. Alexander is a former track star, so he loves to hit the outside and outrun defenders and rack up big yardage.
It will be important for the Steelers to use this to their advantage by bringing Troy Polamalu into the box to engage Alexander and force him to the outside so their cornerbacks and defensive ends can engage him. This will also force Alexander to lose steam as he won't be able to take his time to find holes and make the cuts that he's been used to making this season.
Eric Allen played cornerback for 14 NFL seasons with the Eagles, Saints and Raiders.