This week, I'm going to write each day about some situational adversity the Packers may be facing next Sunday in the Super Bowl. In my first piece, I am going to address the possibility of the Steelers propensity for hard, illegal hits and the effect it may have on the Packers' offense.
Indeed, not only does Harrison seem to relish the role of playing the hitman, he's insisted that it unified the in such a way that it may have save their season.
"We didn't worry about the calls," Harrison said following a six-personal foul day against the Raiders in November. "When you're getting a lot of penalties against you, it brings you together."
Not only have the Harrison and the Steelers not held back from the imperative sent down for the league office, they've vowed to hit harder and keep paying fines if they must, as such aggressive play is the identity of the defense. Unfortunately, if they have held back until the Super Bowl, they have little to stop them from loading for bear against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
It's one thing to be scrapping your way through the AFC playoffs, know each game is a critical step towards the Big Game. The last thing you want to do in the playoffs is make the dumb play that may not only cost you the game, but even if you win, could involve a suspension for the next game. Not even Harrison is dumb enough to take a shot at Tom Brady's head or dive at mark Sanchez's knees after all of the fines he's taken this year with such a national audience and every NFL bigwig watching.
He's not going to risk his status to play in the Super Bowl.
But now that the Super Bowl is here, there's little to discourage a defense that may keep a Ken Stills-esque hit list on their terrible towels. The chances that a referee is going to eject a player from the game is pretty slim, even in the face of a clearly illegal and vicious hit. That is something often decided by the league afterwards, when fines and other punishments are assessed.
And what do the Steelers have to lose? Having to sit the first game of 2011, assuming we even have a season next year? Who cares if you have to sit out the first game of the season, especially if the rewards contributes to a Super Bowl win? What would any NFL player be willing to do to hold the Lombardi Trophy high above their head: sit out one game next year? Two?
Therefore, the Steelers will be locked and loaded, and the bad part of it is that the Packers are vulnerable to such an attack. First and foremost, the health of quarterback Aaron Rodgers has to be not only a concern for Packer fans, but a target for Steeler defenders who don't seem to mind whether or not their hits have an impact on the victim's health.
Rodgers has been vigilant in saying he didn't suffer a concussion against the Bears, but the naked eye still holds some doubts as to why Rodgers doth protest too much. A third concussion in a season would have spelled a potential start by Matt Flynn in the Super Bowl, and I wouldn't want to admit to being a bit woozy either. While such a concussion may not have been an automatic benching for the Super Bowl, it sure would have made for a lot of scrutiny of Rodgers in this already overhyped week.
You can bet, whether it is right or not, or whether they admit it or not, the Steelers would love to make Aaron Rodgers see stars, and I'm not talking about Fergie and Christina Aguillera. Having Rodgers miss significant time in the Super Bowl would force the Packers to change their entire gameplan, as they did against the Patriots in the regular season. And, while Matt Flynn put up a good fight, it wasn't enough in the end.
Worst Case Scenario: The Steelers come aggressively off the edges, picking particularly on rookie tackle Bryan Bulaga playing on the biggest stage of his young career. The Steelers are a high-risk, high-reward blitzing team, and the more the Packers become one-dimensional, the more aggressive the Steelers will be.
And by one-dimensional, I mean that James Starks and the running game will run into the brick wall that is the Pittsburgh run defense. Starks' high running style will find it tough to make significant yardage against the D that held the Jets to 70 yards on 22 carries, and McCarthy will default to centering the offense almost completely around Aaron Rodgers in the backfield.
Yes, Rodgers lit up the Steelers defense in 2009, but that was just a regular season game and did not feature Troy Polamalu. There's nothing to be left on the field and Rodgers will be under fire on every snap. When Rodgers gets rattled, there's a chance he will resort to his old habits: scrambling and holding on to the ball too long. Both habits invite big hits.
It only takes one hit for Rodgers's status to be affected for the rest of the game. With the largest television audience of the year having all-eyes on a groggy-looking Rodgers, the Packers' coaching staff will be under the microscope to take every precaution.
Best Case Scenario: There's a lot of Packer fans who still remember safety Chuck Cecil fondly, but me? Not so much. Oh sure, we all remember the bone-jarring hits and the blood dripping from the nose, but not as many people remember poor Jerry Holmes, the cornerback who often became the whipping boy for giving up big pass plays. What was often missed in the translation was as Cecil was taking his running starts for his big hits, he gave up his coverage and left Holmes (who was expecting over-the-top help) on an island.
The Packers will establish a run game....no, not the shotgun with Brandon Jackson trying to run away from people, but the inverted bone formation with Quinn Johnson, Tom Crabtree, and John Kuhn laying wood on the Steelers front seven. The Packers don't have to gain a ton of yards, and even consistently gaining three yards a play is sufficient if it keeps the linebackers honest.
From that point, you let Rodgers work his magic, utilizing that play-action he's become so good at (and so effective with a potent run threat) and do the quick hitters and screen plays, getting the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible.
The Steelers are a smash-mouth team on both sides of the ball, and such teams live to change not only the gameplay of the other team, but to make the play scared. The Packers need to deliver some smash-mouth football back at them, then use that dome turf to set Jennings, Driver, and Jones loose in the second level.
James Harrison, like Chuck Cecil, can't deliver a punishing hit if he can't get a running start. Keeping his head (as well as all the heads of the defense) on a swivel trying to follow the play will negate the threat of the Packers getting beat up on the way to getting beat.