Super Bowl Post-Mortem and State of the Stillers
February 11, 2011
Listen to the rain a-fallin�
Can�t you hear that lonesome sound?
Oh my poor old heart is breakin��
--Hank Williams Sr.
Forgive me if this is a couple days late, but it takes a little time to get past the emotion that comes from the Super Bowl loss, the worst of all losses -- before returning to objective analysis . Super Bowl XLV turned out to be the reverse �Mirror Image� of the AFC Championship Game, this time the Stillers digging themselves into a huge first-half hole. All in all, a huge wasted opportunity against a newbie Super Bowl team that could�ve been taken.
If you had told me before the game that one team would turn the ball over 3 times and take a 21-10 lead going into halftime, I would�ve said �so far so good, Stillers.� Instead the Black and Yellow played like the Super Bowl rookies, making the dumb mistakes and penalties on the way to a 21-3 deficit they could never overcome.
I talked about the hype and nerves before the game. There were reports of Green Bay being a little too �enthusiastic� in their practices and preparations. However, there were also reports that Tomlin�s plan was to have his guys �ease into the game.� If the latter is true, the Stillers blew a huge chance to take advantage of the other team�s adrenaline surplus. Not only that, but in many ways the Stillers even helped their opponents out:
--The Stillers didn�t come at Rodgers early, as I�d hoped, seeing if they could rattle him. Here I would have shown all-out blitzes -- if not getting to him outright, then forcing him into his hot reads. Here was the spot for classic zone blitzes, dropping linemen into his passing lanes and seeing if you could snare an early pick. The Packers first series started after a PUNT MUFF clearly caused by nerves, which Green Bay was lucky to recover. Instead of trying to keep up the stress, though, the Stillers laid back and even allowed Rodgers to complete a long pass on third and nine.
--The Packers � surprise, surprise � spread the field, trying to dictate the Stiller linebackers into coverage. The way you deal with that is to punish their receivers and quarterback, and dictate them back into protection. The Stillers neither jammed WRs nor came at Rodgers. Worst of all, they never turned loose their twin terrors, Harrison and Polamalu, meekly dropping back both guys most of the night.
--The Packers� second interception actually rewarded them for a blown coverage, which left Heath Miller ALL ALONE streaking towards the end zone. Instead, Ben locks onto Wallace, never seeing any other receivers. The Packers� safety, Bush, had sold out on the short cross, abandoning Miller. Instead of punishing Bush for his gamble, Ben throws into double coverage and the Packers take over in prime field position. This leads to a Green Bay TD � a possible 14-point swing that in fact may have been what really decided the game.
--Nerves or not, the Packers came out aggressively, throwing it downfield. The Stillers � there�s no other way to say this � dicked around at first with bumbly little hitches and bubble screens. Instead of matching the aggressiveness, the Stillers �eased into the game� by throwing the ball sideways.
--Don�t blame Mendenhall for the fatal fumble; he was carrying the ball high and tight when he was hit. The problem is, he was nailed cleanly by two guys at once, thanks to both Johnson and Legursky whiffing on blocks. Again, lame Stiller play bails out Green Bay just when they�re about to lose control of the game � and probably their bowels, too.
--With Ben�s comeback ability and the rules favoring the offense, the Stillers had a completely doable final drive with a full two minutes left. The Packer defense had regressed, and was down the leader of their secondary. But for reasons I�ll cover later (which had nothing to do with the opponent) they failed � and failed even to act like their normal selves. They looked like a crew that had never run a two-minute drill before.
In my pre-game, I stressed three things, none of which came true for the Stillers, and spelled out a loss.
- �This time it will take two good halves, not one.� The Stillers got away with a poor first half against Baltimore, and a skittish second half against the Jets. It was important this time to play well from the get-go, given the opponent�s penchant for fast starts. Instead, the Stillers squandered almost the entire first half. It�s hard to win three games in a row playing only one good half each game � maybe impossible.
- �Whatever you do, do NOT allow the Green Bay receivers a free release.� The Packers run a timing offense, meaning if you can disrupt them coming off the line, you�ve got a good shot at stopping them. Only Ike Taylor (who did a nice job with Jennings overall) seemed to get this, pressing and covering. The rest of the DBs played like they had greased jerseys, allowing the Packer WRs to slide by them with ease. That�s poison when you�re defending against an accurate passer like Rodgers.
- �Troy Polamula needs to be a freelancing, marauding hun.� At his best, Troy�s blowing up plays in the backfield as well as playing coverage. Unfortunately, and for whatever reason, this unique advantage was lost to the Stillers. Instead, Polamalu played back most of the game, making no splash plays and guessing wrong on a crucial late-game Packers TD. We can speculate whether or not he�s still injured, but, regardless, the big X-factor was missing from the game.
Despite all the �next dynasty� talk we�ll now hear about Green Bay, the fact is, the Packers were lucky to be in the playoffs in the first place. Their major gift came on December 19, 2010, when the New York Giants blew a 31-10 LATE FOURTH QUARTER lead vs. Philadelphia. Without this historic collapse, the Packers are golfing in January � likewise, without a shoestring and a stumble, Green Bay has its own collapse against Philly in playoffs game one.
As for Aaron Rodgers, now being crowned the next great QB, he performed, well, predictably. A poster on the message boards asked rather snidely �how do you like Rodgers now?� in the aftermath of my �Rodgers on a roll� pre-game commentary. My answer? �Pretty much the same as when I wrote this, Jimbo.�
Rodgers did EXACTLY what I talked about before the game, if you�d bothered to read: he continued a pattern of putting up sweet-looking stats that made everyone go �oooh!� while cooling off score-wise in the second half. (So much so I ought to be collecting royalties for posting the thing.) Rodgers�s numbers: 24 of 39 for 304 yds., 3 TDs and a lusty 111 rating; this about matched his 109 playoff average. But last I looked, passing stats don�t win games � scores do. For all his efficiency, Green Bay scored all of one touchdown in the second half (including a goose egg in the third quarter), the whole reason the Stillers were even in the game. The Packers offense punted three times in a row at one point in the third quarter. If anything, I give the game ball to the Green Bay defense, which tackled superbly, not allowing the Stillers WRs much in the way of YAC � and bailing out the stalled Packers offense by forcing a crucial fumble with the Stillers about to take the lead (not to mention chipping in a TD without which the Packers don�t win).
The Stillers D slammed the door on Rodgers in the third period, but again, the Stillers offense steps in to help. If not for Ben missing horribly on a deep flag to Wallace, the Stillers take the lead in spite of the Mendenhall fumble AND the ill-advised Suisham figgie attempt. That�s not to say Rodgers didn�t make some terrific throws, including the huge 3rd-and-10 that broke the Stillers hearts. But again, it�s touchdowns that count, not passing stats, and the lack of scoring production says more to me than passer rating. One TD in the second half, zero points the entire third quarter � you call THAT a dominant performance?
In fact, without both the Mendenhall fumble and the Ben overthrow, the Packers likely watch their huge lead evaporate � I�d be willing to wager if they get behind here, the game gets away from them � resulting in one of the biggest choke jobs in Super Bowl history. If not for either of these huge plays � which Rodgers had nothing to do with � that wrestling-belt maneuver gets replaced with two hands around throat, squeeze hard!
Yes, despite a day where just about EVERYTHING went against the Stillers, thanks to Green Bay�s frozen-tundra second-half offense, they managed to get the ball back with a final chance to win. Why they didn�t, with a QB who pulls off comebacks like bears crap in the woods, is the key question for the offensive coaching staff to answer now.
I was at Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa and saw the Stillers� winning drive in person. That day I had full confidence in their ability to drive the length of the field. This time I just didn�t have that feeling. The passing game had been too inconsistent; even though there was plenty of time, the offense seemed skittish and confused, as opposed to the squad that took the field confidently in Tampa.
Much was made of the Stillers and their 25 players with Super Bowl experience, but most of those players play defense. Wallace, Sanders, Brown and Mendenhall all lacked Bowl time, and it showed. The fact is, half the entire Stillers skill-position crew had never played in the Super Bowl. This was little talked about going into the game, but turned out to be a real factor. Key Fox is getting crucified for his bonehead personal foul, but, really, for all the yelling that�s hardly what did the team in. Even if the Stillers had started at the fifty I wonder if they could�ve gotten the job done, as out of sync as they looked here.
The series started nicely, with a quick 15-yarder to Miller (who would then be ignored the rest of the way). Then came an OK first-down 5-yarder to Ward, and then� a confused-looking, lethargic, lollygagging disaster.
I was puzzled by the execution on that last drive. Ben appeared to be looking at the intermediate stuff, right into the heart of the coverage, rather than taking the gimmee short yardage a defense offers late. NOW the Stillers could�ve run those little hitches � on third-and-five (1:02 mark) the nearest Packer defender facing Wallace is about ten yards away. This kind of cushion screams for the quick bubble screen, with no DB there to make the stop. That�s an easy five yards, first down � and with Wallace�s speed, a whiffed tackle could mean a huge gainer.
On the same play you also see the back come out of the backfield and slip behind the �spy� (who�s too focused on Ben to notice) � WIDE OPEN three yards downfield with ACRES of empty green around him. That�s the five yards there, plus who knows what in YAC � instead Ben insists on looking long, passing up the sure conversion for a lower-percentage pass.
I can only describe this last �drive� as a total abortion: first, Jonathan Scott loses his shoe, and the Stillers have to rush in Essex to play his spot. On the final second-down snap, Wallace lines up waving him arms in confusion, as if he doesn�t know the play. Receivers line up in the wrong places, wasting precious seconds. There�s a miscommunication between Ben and Ward on the last third down. On fourth down, Ben snubs Miller in the flat, and throws deeper to Wallace � who, unlike Miller, is being bracketed by defenders. The throw is high, and Wallace has no chance to clamp before the DB swats the ball away -- game over. Ben�s locked onto him yet again, like a puppy to a rubber bone � inexplicably tossing the last three passes his way. (The loss of Emmanuel Sanders earlier was huge � he seemed the most relaxed of all the young receivers, and probably had the most favorable coverage match-ups on the day.)
The sad part is, Green Bay did nothing special to stop the Stillers the last series: they put no pressure on the QB, and the coverage was vanilla. Ben has plenty of room to step up in the pocket, but instead takes deep drops that add to the yardage needed to convert. And here�s the key difference between the Tampa drive and this one: in XLIII, Ben�s moving around and doing all that sandlot stuff he�s famous for. In XLV, he stands still as a statue and just fires it downfield � sparing Green Bay his vaunted scramble threat. There was no need to prove you�re Dan Marino here � do what you do best. Ben didn�t.
I have to ask: where were the roll-outs, the boots, the play-extending stuff that screws up defenses? The Stillers line did a good job of protecting all day � maybe it was too good. Maybe the team could�ve benefited from a little more pressure on Ben, forcing him to scramble and make some of those magic plays.
With two minutes to go and the ball in Ben�s hands, everyone in Wisconsin was reaching for the Immodium, remembering how the �09 scorefest ended. Likewise, Stiller fans had every reason to be confident. Instead, the Stillers let the Packers off the hook, sparing them even a final scare. They left a lot of yards on the field the last few plays; the gimmee third-down circle route was good for at least ten � not to mention the crucial conversion.
Here�s the play I would�ve tried immediately after they gained the final first down � call me crazy, but hear me out first. The Stillers have one of the best open-field runners in football on their roster, a guy you�ve seen weave through would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone many a time. That player? None other than Troy Polamalu.
Imagine the look on the Packers� defense as Polamalu trots out onto the field. Since the Stillers have never used Troy on offense, how could they have possibly prepared for such a play?
The Super Bowl is a time to pull out all the stops, do whatever is needed, especially on a last-chance drive. I�d have called for all the receivers to run long, have Ben pump fake once, then throw a dump-off to Troy coming out of the backfield. Let him catch the ball in the empty zone in the middle of the field, five yards upfield, with a five-yard head start heading into that prevent defense. With even a couple decent downfield blocks, tell me he doesn�t gain at least 15 yards � or more. With another good block, tell me he doesn�t go another 15 � or more.
But such is the stuff of speculation and fantasy � file it away for your next last-ditch Super Bowl series.
Now then, pardon me for pointing out the following:
What was missing from that last drive in particular (and the entire game in general) was the guy who could turn the 6-yard dump-off into the 40-yard gainer. I hate to harp on this, but as you know I�ve also hated the dumping of Santonio Holmes in the first place. They missed both his superior RAC skills and his Super Bowl experience � not to mention how he often seemed to be on the same page with Roethlisberger. They could have used him in this one. As far as I�m concerned, the Stillers bowed to the pitchfork-and-torch crowd and dumped a money playoff player for nothing but P.R. reasons. It came back to bite them in the end.
I love Wallace, but if you�re going to tell me he has the same rapport with Ben that Holmes had, I�m going to laugh. Let�s just hope the two can develop that same kind of relationship going forward.
State of the Stillers: �The Need for Speed�
OK, mourning time is over � time to look ahead. I want to revisit now a point I made in my pre-game, regarding the nature of the team.
The Stillers are built to beat their major rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. Likewise, this make-up allows them to handle �ground and pound� teams like the Jets, the way you saw the Stillers bludgeon them in the AFC Championship.
The Stillers enjoyed a lot of good fortune on the way to the Super Bowl. First they managed to get the vital bye week, edging out Baltimore by the narrowest of margins. They had the luxury of facing two teams neither of whom possess true franchise-quality QBs. This covered up some serious flaws, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Unfortunately, the road to a championship usually means facing at least one top-shelf QB, and pass-first offense. The Stillers avoided this obstacle for two games, facing Flacco and Sanchez -- but there was no avoiding it in the third. The Stillers secondary was exposed for what it is, an average group low on coverage skills which suffers without pressure from the front seven. There�s one elite safety, one excellent cornerback � and everyone else. Obtaining another corner with the ability to press-man cover is a must. I�m talking about a big, fast, rangy type, not the munchkins who currently patrol the secondary. And while you�re at it, some speed at safety wouldn�t hurt.
If winning is the great deodorant as is said, then losing uncovers the stink and should clear the mind. The Stillers must now face reality � a true championship defense must be able to handle both the bruising run and the finesse-passing offense. (A topic I covered back in November with my �Maginot Line� commentary.) Like New England and New Orleans, the Packers asked �what, you stop the run like nobody else? No problem, we won�t bother.� They too exposed the myth of �balance,� passing the ball exactly three times as often as they ran it. And won the game with a whopping 50 yards gained on the ground.
It�s simple, but not easy: the Stillers must equip themselves to deal with spread offenses, and the different pressure that puts on the defense. Teams spread out the Stillers to draw their linebackers and safeties into coverage, and make it harder to disguise blitzes. They also look to match LBs up with WRs (something you saw Green Bay do again Sunday) or TEs on smaller DBs like Gay.
I�d ask this too: is it just the players? Does a defense that snuffs the run but gets tooled every time they play a spread timing-pass offense need to change? Maybe LeBeau�s system itself has gotten long in the tooth, and it�s time to re-evaluate.
The Stillers two main areas of improvement lie in their offensive line and defensive backfield. A good deal of the line�s problems will be solved when their two best o-linemen return from injury. Unfortunately the same can�t be said for the defensive backfield.
The good news is, a lot of that problem can be solved by adding that true cover corner to the roster (and re-upping Ike Taylor). This would move McFadden to nickel back, and most of all, push out the hopeless William Gay � who got picked on in the Super Bowl like a nerd wearing lunch-money underwear. I almost felt sorry watching the 5�9� Gay matched up against the 6�3� Jordy Nelson, and seeing him given the football equivalent of atomic wedgies. The Packers smelled guppie blood, and went for the kill. I can imagine the name for the Green Bay offensive game plan: �Gay all day.�
The situation calls for cover guys with size � it�s time to decide what to do with the 6�0 Keenan Lewis and 6�1 Crezdon Butler. If they�re the guys, fine � if not, look at the free-agent wire or move up in the draft, a la Santonio Holmes a few years ago. Hey, I don�t care, look at the Wal-Mart Saturday football leagues, just get somebody big who can cover. If you�re going to rush only 3 and play what Mill calls the �soft, cheesy� defense, you�d better have big guys who can run with the dogs, and make plays on the ball.
While you�re at it, more speed at safety wouldn�t hurt. Ryan Clark is a popular playmaker, but his limitations hurt sometimes. Clark said he guessed right on Rodgers�s second TD pass � what he failed to mention was the fact he was a step too slow to get there in time. A younger, faster DB not only gets there, but maybe even picks off the pass; the Stillers must decide whether Clark�s dependable but slow play warrants keeping.
Polamalu and Ike (pending contract negotiations) are set. Every other spot from starting corner through dime guy should be up for grabs. Frankly, I don�t ever want to have to hear some TV talk-head spew the line �the way to beat the Stillers is to spread them out.� Like it or not, though, this is probably what�s standing between the team and another Lombardi.
Priority number two is addressing age issues at both linebacker and defensive line. James Harrison isn�t getting any younger, and Lamarr Woodley will want big money for little production the last couple years. There�s Jason Worilds who showed flashes of ability, but there�s only one of him for two possible spots. The 49ers stole away terrific young LB Thaddeus Gibson, a guy I loved coming out of Ohio State. That need will have to be addressed, too.
The Stillers must look inside � literally � and FINALLY admit the truth about Farrior. On Green Bay�s third TD play, the scheme called for the inside �backer to cover Jennings out of the slot� is Farrior the guy if you�re going to risk that mismatch? Farrior was slow running down the seam, leaving the receiver wide open in the end zone. In fairness to Farrior, covering the other team�s top receiver is a lot to ask of a LB � but it�s going to happen again sometime, and can you afford to have it be a guy with as many miles on the tires as he has?
If you won�t draft a replacement, look on your roster � at Sylvestor Stevenson. Stevenson impressed on special teams, and in pre-season games at LB. He shows good instincts and speed. It�s time to stop being afraid of your younger players, and see what they can do.
The Stillers have a proven record of fixing weak spots � provided they put emotion aside and make the necessary changes. The core pass offense of Ben, Wallace, Sanders and Brown will only improve as Roethlisberger develops the same rapport with them as Holmes (let�s hope, anyway). No doubt an o-lineman would be a wise investment, as would a speed running back to spell Mendenhall (Redman�s quite a find, though) � other than that, the Stillers look good heading into whatever future football has right now.
As for the o-line, Starks, Pouncey and Colon/Adams make up one of the league�s better trios; the weaker links are at guard. Decide for yourself if Kemo and Foster are the answers, or questions. (Kemo played high against Green on that pick-six play, and got �jacked up� as they say.) Legursky provides nice depth and versatility. Still, o-line comes in tied for second with d-line as a draft priority. A Stiller team without a dominant front five is like sunlight in Cleveland � the two just don�t seem to go together.
Ziggy Hood came on at the end of the season, and lessened the blow of losing the incomparable Aaron Smith. So much so, that if Smith should return, he could be used in a rotation role. Other than that, the defense overall has room for improvement, beginning with cornerback. It�s all about speed and size, now, to develop a defense that can start bragging about stopping the pass. In future playoffs, the Stillers won�t be lucky enough to avoid the Mannings, Bradys and, yes, Rodgerses, of the league � like the evolutionist said, �adapt or die.�
All in all, a good season, with the team going further than about anyone thought they could. Still, there�s nothing worse than getting all the way to the Bowl, and coming up short. Don�t buy any of this �new Packer dynasty� hype based on Sunday, though � there are no such things anymore. In today�s NFL, improve your team from one year to the next, and you get right in the hunt again.
I can�t end without discussing the outside stuff that went on with the Stillers this season. Between the Millidgeville incident, the Holmes fiasco and the Goodell hose job, it�s a wonder the Stillers even made the playoffs this year. Next year � let�s hope � the Stillers don�t face such distractions. An improved pass defense, plus a year�s experience for the Young Money crew, puts the Stillers right back into the chase. It�s up to you, now, Mr. Rooney, to make the moves that need to be made.
It�s been quite a ride, this 2010 season. The Stillers played the Super Bowl pretty much the way they�d played all year, particularly the playoffs: with one good half each game. In the end, they finally met the QB who made enough plays to make them pay for it.
Have a good off season, everyone � Palmer out.