Four Big Plays Made the Packers Champs

(originally published February 7, 2011)

Four big plays.

The Pittsburgh Steelers ran more plays, gained more yards, had more first downs, committed fewer penalties, and had a significant edge in time of possession.  But the Green Bay Packers made the four key plays and rode them to victory in Super Bowl XLV, 31-25.

The Packers won their sixth consecutive must-win game, going back to the next-to-last week of the season.  Aaron Rodgers, named the Super Bowl MVP, completed 24 of 39 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns.  It was his third 3-TD, 0-interception game of the playoffs, and both numbers were essential to the Green Bay victory.

The first big play came on Green Bay’s second drive.  With the game scoreless, the Pack alternated runs and passes to move 51 yards to the Steelers’ 29.  On third-and-1, Rodgers spotted William Gay in one-on-one coverage with Jordy Nelson, and he hit Nelson in stride at the two; Nelson tumbled in for the touchdown that gave Green Bay the lead.

After a penalty on the kickoff return pushed the Steelers back to their own 7, Ben Roethlisberger looked deep down the left sideline for Michael Wallace on the first play from scrimmage.  He was hit on the release by 365-pound defensive tackle Howard Green, and the pass came down a good eight yards behind Wallace.  Safety Nick Collins ran over to intercept it, took it in full stride, zigged and zagged through traffic, and finally dove between two Pittsburgh linemen for the touchdown.

This second big play put Green Bay up 14-0.  The one thing any team playing Pittsburgh fears is having to play from behind; the Packers would play from out front for the rest of the game.

Pittsburgh’s jerrybuilt offensive line was having problems with the Packers’ defensive front.  The Pack was getting consistent penetration in the middle, keeping the Steelers’ running game in check.  Roethlisberger kept drives alive with his scrambles, but he threw another interception in the second quarter, which Rodgers converted by hitting Greg Jennings on a seam route inside for 21 yards and another touchdown.  The score was now 21-3; no team had ever come from more than ten points behind to win a Super Bowl.

With Green Bay focusing on the Steelers’ speedy young receivers, Roethlisberger turned to his old hands, hitting Antwaan Randle El for a big play and Hines Ward three times for 39 yards and a touchdown that cut the lead to 21-10 at halftime.

Both teams had adjustments to make during the extended break.  Green Bay lost two defensive backs and wideout Donald Driver during the first half; Sam Shields would return, but Charles Woodson and Driver were done for the day.  Pittsburgh, meanwhile, would be without Emmanuel Sanders, an important weapon in opening the field for the blazing Wallace.

The third quarter was all Pittsburgh’s.  Time after time, Rashard Mendenhall and Ike Redman found the Packers overloading the middle to stop the run, and bounced outside for hefty gains.  The Steelers drove 50 yards on five running plays to make it 21-17 just five minutes into the second half.

The Steelers gained 70 yards in nine rushing attempts in the quarter, while Green Bay could get nothing going.  The Pack had zero yards on two runs, Rodgers averaged just 3.6 yards on ten pass attempts (four completions), and they committed five penalties for 47 yards.  After the opening TD, however, Pittsburgh could only manage a missed 52-yard field-goal attempt, so the score was still 21-17 at the start of the fourth quarter.

On the first play of the quarter, the Packers made their third big play.  With all the energy seemingly on Pittsburgh’s side, Clay Matthews and Ryan Pickett sandwiched Mendenhall behind the line; the ball squirted loose, and Desmond Bishop picked it up for the third Green Bay takeaway.

Rodgers took over at the Packers’ 45, and despite another in a series of drops by Nelson, the two combined for a 38-yard catch-and-run that brought the ball to the Steelers’ two and set up the fourth Green Bay touchdown –their third off a turnover.  Rodgers and Nelson both saw the Steelers blitzing two from the right side, and Nelson signaled for the quick slant that set him free for the big gain.

But Pittsburgh wasn’t done.  Seven consecutive short throws set up a quick strike over the top to Wallace, bringing the score to 28-23.  On the two-point play, the Steelers took a page out of the old Wishbone playbook, faking an inside handoff, sending Roethlisberger running left, and when the defense closed on him, he pitched to Randle El for the conversion that made it a three-point game.

With the crowd making it sound like yet another road playoff game for the Packers, Rodgers made the fourth big play for Green Bay, the one they needed when they needed it most.  He faced third-and-10 on his own 25 after a sack, a completion, and a false start penalty.  Rodgers took the snap, surveyed the field, and drilled a strike to Jennings behind Ike Taylor and in front of Troy Polamalu, good for 31 yards to the Pittsburgh 44.

Instead of having to punt from deep in their own territory with five minutes to go in a three-point game, the Packers were able to keep the drive going, adding a field goal for a six-point lead with 2:07 to play.

Pittsburgh now needed a touchdown, but had only one timeout left.  Redman received the kickoff short, but wasted eight seconds trying to make a play, and an unnecessary roughness penalty dug the Steelers a deeper hole.  Their first play would come after the two-minute warning, not just before, and from their own 13.

Roethlisberger completed two passes, but there would be no magic comeback.  On second down, he threw deep left to Hines Ward, but Ward had run a different route and the pass flew over everybody.  Another deep ball to Wallace fell incomplete.  On fourth-and-5, he threw high to Wallace, but Tramon Williams broke up the play.  After two kneel-downs, the Green Bay Packers were champions.

Three turnovers.  Four critical plays.  On any given Sunday, the game might easily have gone the Steelers’ way.  On the only day that matters, the Packers took the fourth title.  With their youth on the defensive side and the best under-30 quarterback in the league, Green Bay could well remain Titletown for a few years to come.

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