One For the Thumb
Super Bowl XL is now a little more than 48 hours away, and it is finally starting to feel more like a football game than a media spectacle. I am really sick of all the hype at this point, but I can't seem to tear myself away from the TV. I've pretty much taken the entire week off and glued myself to ESPN to watch all the press conferences, analysis, and other ridiculous bullshit that has been going on in Detroit. I usually don't pay too much attention to pre-game analyses because, first of all, they usually suck, and second of all, even when they are well done, they still don't tell you anything about what's going to happen. In my opinion, football is a game of performance rather than match-ups, and no one can predict how two teams will fare against each other on a given Sunday until they are actually out on the field playing the game. With that being said, however, here are some of factors that will be key in Super Bowl XL.
Steelers Pass Rush - A lot has been said by and about Joey Porter this week, and he has come to represent the Steelers' aggressive zone-blitz scheme. As everyone knows, Walter Jones, the Seattle left tackle, is one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL, and Joey Porter's ability to get to the QB will definitely be more difficult if Jones is in the way. But I think the beauty of the Steelers defensive scheme is in creating mismatches, and because of this Porter will still be in the Seahawks backfield enough to disrupt the passing game on Sunday. The reason the Steelers are so effective at pressuring the QB is because of their defensive line, especially Casey Hampton. Like every other team the Steelers face, Seattle is going to have to double-team Hampton, which means that the Seahawks are going to have to dedicate four offensive linemen to block three Steelers defensive linemen. That leaves one offensive lineman, a tight end and a back to block the other blitzing players. The problem, however, is that it is impossible to tell who the other pass rushers will be, and Dick LeBeau will be trying to take advantage of the poor blocking of Shaun Alexander and Jerramy Stevens as much as possible. And even when the Seahawks guess right and pick up the blitz, players like Aaron Smith, Kimo von Oelhoffen, Clark Haggans, Joey Porter, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu are good enough to shed their blockers and make a play regardless. Hasselbeck is athletic enough to avoid sacks, and Holmgren will likely create a game plan that will call for short passes to minimize the time Hasselbeck stands in the pocket. The key for the Steelers will be in forcing the Seahawks into third-and-long situations, which is when LeBeau really uncorks his most innovative and devastating blitz packages.
Seahawks Running Game - This season Seattle running back Shaun Alexander led the league in rushing with 1880 yards and set the NFL record for TDs in a season with 27 on his way to being named league MVP. Alexander is the type of player that fantasy football nerds love - in fact, if you see some random dude wearing an Alexander jersey out in public there is a better chance that he has Alexander on his fantasy football squad than that he is a Seahawks fan. Alexander is a big and fast, but is also a little soft. A huge blow to Alexander's reputation as a dominant football player occurred in the second round game against the Redskins, when the Seahawks' offense managed to continue moving the ball with Maurice Morris at RB after Alexander suffered a concussion and missed virtually the entire game. This is not to say that Seattle's running game won't be a factor against the Steelers, because Seattle is definitely going to try to establish the run. The point is that Alexander's numbers are more a product of Seattle's offensive line than his individual talent. The Steelers are perhaps the best run-stopping team in the NFL. The Steelers allowed only one RB to gain over 100 yards this season, and only one other RB gained over 80 yards against the Steelers' defense. The reason for this is that the Steelers are very good tacklers. They swarm towards the ball and gang tackle near the line of scrimmage. The linebackers, safeties and corners (and also apparently their quarterbacks) are excellent open-field tacklers as well. The only way Shaun Alexander will have a big game against the Steelers is if they uncharacteristically miss a lot of tackles. Shaun Alexander is big and tough to bring down, but he isn't really considered powerful, so I don't think the Steelers, who managed to hold players like LaDainian Tomlinson, Rudi Johnson, Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones, and Mike Anderson in check, will be intimidated by the NFL's MVP in Super Bowl XL.
Quarterbacks - Many people have been calling this match-up a draw this week, but I just don't see how anyone can discount what Roethlisberger has done down the stretch this season. During the Steelers' current seven-game winning streak they have averaged 28.7 points per game, and most of that must be attributed to Roethlisberger's performance at QB. Big Ben has thrown for 680 yards, 7 TDs (plus one running TD), and 1 interception in the Steelers' three playoff games. Not only that, but his poise and leadership have propelled the Steelers to early leads in their last two games. Hasselbeck has been efficient in his two playoff starts, but it must be remembered that they played in the comfort of home against two teams that were really banged up. Hasselbeck has not won a playoff game on the road in his career. Big Ben has won three. Ben Roethlisberger's record as a starter in the NFL is 27-4; of those four losses, two came against the Patriots and one came against the Colts. Big Ben has the potential to be the NFL's next superstar, and he has the confidence to make it happen now. He has already faced some of the toughest tests he will ever face in his NFL career and came out on top. Hasselbeck will be playing the biggest game of his career in a hostile environment against a team that made Peyton look like Eli and exposed Jake Plummer for a fraud. Hasselbeck will get rattled, and when he does the Steelers will go for his jugular.
The Steelers are four point favorites even though they are the AFC's number six team and the Seahawks are the NFC's best team. The AFC was clearly the better conference this year. The Colts, Patriots, Bengals, Broncos, Steelers, Chargers and Chiefs would all have been favored over any team from the NFC. The fact that the Steelers have won seven games in a row, and have looked impressive doing it, gives further justification to the spread. The Seahawks are a product of a weak schedule. They went 13-3 in the regular season, but had no quality wins, and they should have lost to the Giants and Cowboys. Four of their wins came against the 49ers and Cardinals. As far as how the 'Hawks fared against their AFC opponents, they lost to Jacksonville, barely beat Tennessee (28-24), killed Houston and beat Indy when they were resting all their starters. In the playoffs they beat the Redskins and the Panthers, both of whom were very beat up entering the games. The Steelers recorded quality wins against the Chargers (in SD), Bengals (in Cincy) and Bears (in Pitt). The Steelers swept the NFC North in four easy wins, and as everyone knows by now, the Steelers knocked off the top three seeds in the AFC on their way to the Super Bowl. The much heralded "12th Man" will not help the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. In fact, with Detroit's proximity to Pittsburgh, the Steelers' nation-wide fan base, the distance between Seattle and Detroit, and the Bettis coming home story, the Steelers could potentially have one of the biggest home field advantages in recent Super Bowl history on Sunday.
Although I like the way things are shaping up for the Steelers, I can't help but be extremely nervous about the game. I have visions in my head of the Seahawks stunning the world and it has been making me lose sleep all week. One thought, however, consoles me: defense wins championships. That is what really separates these two teams. The Seahawks defense is adequate, but the Steelers defense is dominating, and that will be the reason why the Steelers prevail. Even if the Steelers were playing the 49ers in Week 9 I would be a nervous wreck before the game. This is the Super Bowl and the stakes are as high as they can be. This is what having a favorite team is all about. I have faith that the Steelers will come out and play like they have all season. If they do, it will be good enough to win the Super Bowl. My pick is Steelers 31, Seahawks 13.