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Steelers and Packers are both serious about defense

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Randy Covitz
January 30, 2011
— The last time Pittsburgh played Green Bay, it was an assault on the scoreboard.

The two teams rolled up 973 yards, including a franchise-record 503 passing yards by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh's 37-36 win over the Packers on Dec. 20, 2009.


Don't expect that kind of offensive explosion when the two teams meet in Super Bowl XLV next Sunday in Arlington, Texas.


The Steelers and Packers reached the Super Bowl by playing unmerciful, uncompromising defense.


The Steelers led the NFL in at least eight different categories, notably fewest points allowed at 14.5 per game and fewest touchdowns allowed with 22. The Steelers also led the league in rush defense and in sacks, with 48, and were third in takeaways with 35.


The Packers, meanwhile, finished second to Pittsburgh in points allowed at 15.0 per game and in sacks with 47 and were sixth in takeaways with 32. Including the playoffs, Green Bay allowed 17 or fewer points in 11 of 19 games this season. And in all three postseason wins, the Packers held Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago below their regular-season scoring average.


"I think if you walked into their defensive huddle, it would sound a lot like our defensive huddle," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said.


That's because the Steelers and Packers play aggressive, zone-blitzing 3-4 defenses that are directed by two of the most respected coordinators in the game, Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau and Green Bay's Dom Capers.


So why did the defenses surrender so many points in the 2009 game?


Last season was Capers' first in Green Bay, and it took a while to install his defense, which he ran as the Steelers' defensive coordinator during 1992-94 under Bill Cowher. The Steelers, meanwhile, were beset with injuries on defense at the end of last season, which was one reason they missed the playoffs.


"To me the biggest difference in our defense from this and a year ago, we weren't very good in adversity situations a year ago," Capers said. "When we had to go on the field, on our side of the field, whether it be after a turnover or big return, people scored points a high percentage of the time against us"


LeBeau was the Steelers' secondary coach for Capers in Pittsburgh and became defensive coordinator after Capers in 1995 after Capers became the first coach of the Carolina Panthers. Capers went on to coach the Houston Texans, and LeBeau served as coach of the Cincinnati Bengals before returning to Pittsburgh in 2004. They've continued to maintain a close friendship.


"Anybody that's been in the league over 50 years as a player and a coach has to have something special," Capers said of LeBeau, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer for his play as a defensive back. "If you look at him over the last 18, 19 years and probably put their collective defensive stats together, I don't think anybody can compare with him.


"They've been running pretty close to the defense since '92. So they've drafted for it. One of the great things about the stability of that organization is that defense probably hasn't changed a whole lot. So normally, if they have a player go down, they've got one standing there that they've been training to come along. We're still evolving."


Both defenses are stacked with marquee players. Pittsburgh features linebacker James Harrison, the 2008 NFL defensive player of the year and hero of Super Bowl XLIII when he returned an interception a Super Bowl record 100 yards; and play-making safety Troy Polamalu.


The Packers defense includes cornerback Charles Woodson, the 2009 NFL defensive player of the year, and second-year linebacker Clay Matthews, who has received NFL defensive player of the year honors for 2010.


LeBeau was particularly proud of the Steelers' run defense, which allowed a franchise-best 62.5 yards per carry or 30 yards fewer than any other team in the league. The Steelers allowed only five rushing touchdowns all season, and no opposing back topped 100 yards.


It's a Pittsburgh tradition.


"They had some pretty good defenses here in the 1970s," LeBeau said of the four Super Bowl championship teams that formed the Steel Curtain. "But to put up numbers like our guys did in a 16-game season, they had to play darn-good run defense.


"Sometimes that is handed down from generation of players to another. I definitely think this group of defenders has been affected by earlier groups by how hard they play and how they run to the ball. That's just Steelers football."



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