Well, the Packers did what the Jets and Ravens couldn’t: beat the Steelers. With two minutes left to go in the game, I texted my brother, saying “The Steelers will break the hearts of Wisconsin like they do every other team.” I meant it, too. Give Ben Roethlisberger two minutes and a touchdown deficit or less and the game is all but over. Fans saw it in the Super Bowl a few years ago against Arizona, and of course late in the game against Baltimore to go to the AFC Championship game. So how did the Packers stop Ben? For one, Ben looked the part of Joe Flacco with the way he threw erratically in a critical situation and laid his receivers out even on that final ill-fated 4th down attempt. I love Joe, but apart from his comeback against the Roethlisberger-less Steelers earlier this season, he hasn’t been the king of clutch. But the final drive was a culmination of a number of elements that allowed the 6th seeded, inconsistent, but supremely talented Packers to win the Super Bowl.
First of all, Green Bay did what they did best regardless of what Pittsburgh threw at them, which meant spreading the field with their talented wide receiving corp and attack the questionable Steeler secondary. Even after losing Donald Driver and building up a sizeable lead the Packers continued to throw the ball, 39 times to just 13 rushes. They did not, as the Ravens did, withdraw into their shell and cease using the many weapons at their disposal in the passing game. Too often the Ravens lacked a clear offensive identity in the same way they had since early 2009. Either make the commitment to throw the football with Joe Flacco and a wide receiving corp that was 4 deep with playmaking, experienced receivers, or run the ball with Ray Rice and (hopefully) LeRon McClain and Willis McGahee. By the time they tried to gear back up the passing game after abandoning it, the tide had already turned to the Steelers. Green Bay stalled for a bit during the middle of the game, but never changed their game plan or watched the scoreboard.
Secondly, Green Bay had a secondary capable of stopping the explosive Pittsburgh wideouts enough times to keep them from accumulating big chunk plays down the field. Though Charles Woodson was not able to play the entire game, the Packers had enough depth and enough discipline to keep up with the likes of Mike Wallace down the field. This is something that the Ravens cannot fix without some personnel changes. Yes, Baltimore gets Dominique Foxworth back from injury next season (assuming there is a season), but he and Lardarius Webb are not Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams. With Chris Carr, Fabian Washington, Josh Wilson, and Dawan Landry all set for free agency, next year’s secondary could be another work in progress. The confidence that Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers had in his backups allowed them to run zone blitzes even when down two-fifths of their starting secondary.
It was that sort of flexibility that allowed the Packers to remain unpredictable in their play calling defensively, which led to three turnovers, one of which was an interception for a touchdown. While it’s true that Roethlisberger was erratic for much of the night, the Packers had a defense to match Aaron Rodgers’ arm. Baltimore isn’t far off the pace of either of these teams. A cornerback here or there, a faster release from Joe Flacco, more creative play calling both offensively and defensively (that is, making the best use of the weapons at your disposal), and a deep threat at wide receiver could put Baltimore on the level of the Steelers or even the Packers.
I am not sure how much of a solace this is to Ravens fans who felt that the 2010 version of this team was perfectly capable of reaching and winning the Super Bowl, and whose 2011 version has already been given the 5th best odds to win the next one. Personally I question whether the Ravens would have fared any better against yesterday’s Packers than the Steelers did. But perhaps with a few tweaks, Baltimore can punish Pittsburgh the same way Roethlisberger has the Ravens in this career. After all, there’s always next year… barring a lockout, of course.