Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Punt That Helped Win the Super Bowl

The Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers in a nailbiter, winning 31-25, having to stop the Steelers on what would be the game-winning drive.  It was a beautiful, unbelievable moment, but most of us look earlier than Jarrett Bush's final stop to determine what was the critical play of the game that spelled victory for the Packers.

Most Packer fans (and likely, most Steeler fans) would point to the Rasheed Mendenhall fumble at the start of the fourth quarter.  The recovery by Desmond Bishop on his own side of the 50-yard line diverted what would have been at least a field-goal attempt, if not a go-ahead touchdown.  And certainly, that was the moment where the Packers found their steam again.

Others will point to Nick Collins' dramatic pick-six in the first quarter, a dagger that left the Steelers reeling and unable to get anything going for nearly the rest of the half.  Again, you could see the momentum tip all the way over to the Packers' side in that moment.

It's the NFL's biggest game, to be forever defined by its biggest plays.  When NFL Films goes to show the best highlight of the winning team, chances are it will be Collins' interception, Matthew's forced fumble, or Bush's defensed pass.  But, there's a much smaller game always at work, too...and in a 6-point game, every decision in that chess match is critical.

The one moment that gets oft-overlooked amongst all of the flashy plays in the Super Bowl is the decision of Mike McCarthy to punt in the ball in the third quarter.  In the end, it could well have spelled the difference in the game, but not without the Steelers' help. 

Face the third quarter, the Packers' were reeling.  On their first two possessions of the half, the Packers amassed seven total yards and held the ball for 3:06 of just over ten minutes of play.  The Steelers had piled up 76 yards of offense and had already scored a touchdown on their first drive, and were in Packer territory on their second.  The score was 21-17, and the Steelers had whittled down an 18-point deficit, looking to close it out.

The Steelers were stopped on the Packers' 34-yard line, after Ben Roethlisberger held onto the ball for an extraordinarily long time, allowing Frank Zombo to sneak in for a sack.  This left Pittsburgh with a 4th-and-15.  At this point, Mike Tomlin chose to send out kicker Shaun Suisham to attempt a 52-yard field goal, despite not having attempted anything past 50 yards in the regular season.  It was a risky move, but a logical one.  A field goal would keep the momentum going, would shave the Packers' lead to one point, and keep the Packers' playing on their heels.

As it turns out, Suisham missed it, badly.  The impact of the missed field goal was huge, as the Steelers had been freely moving the ball since Charles Woodson and Sam Shields were injured at the end of the first half.  Not only did Pittsburgh finish up a 9-play, 4:31 drive with nothing to show for it, they gave the Packers the ball on the Green Bay 43-yard line. 

Now, not only did that missed field goal have an emotional impact, it played large for a Packer offense that was in a rut and unable to move the ball.  On their two previous possesions, the Packers started at their own 20, then their own 18.  After punting, the Steelers started on the 50-yard line and their own 40.  That's a huge advantage in field position, as well as psychological advantage.  Now, the Packers made a stop and had their ball on their own 43 to start.

Now, the Packers continued to have problems moving the ball on that drive, gaining one first down, then going three-and-out.  But, the same temptation was there for Mike McCarthy.  The Packers finished with a fourth-and-eight on the Pittsburgh 38-yard line:  a mere 55-yard attempt for Mason Crosby in a dome environment.  Crosby was 2-4 on the regular season from beyond 50 yards, and we all know he has the leg strength for it.  And a field goal would extend the lead to seven points in what had to be a moment on the sidelines desperate for something on the scoreboard.

But, McCarthy realized the importance of field position when his offense was still running in neutral.  Any advantage gained by the Packers after a missed field goal would be lost if they did the same in kind.  So, McCarthy sent out Tim Masthay to put the ball.  It was a 25-yarder, fair caught by Randle-El at the Pittsburgh 13-yard line.  It would be Masthay's only punt inside the 20-yard line all game long.

In a flash, the field position battle was turned around.  No, it didn't "turn around" the momentum of the game, but it did take the steam out of the Steelers.  The two teams traded two more punts on three-and-outs, but a penalty on Tramon Williams on the Steelers' punt return gave the field position back...and it took Matthews' forced fumble to prevent the Steelers from driving further into Packer territory.

Had the Steelers made that field goal, and the Packers gotten the ensuing kickoff back at around the 20-yard line again, the momentum would have been very much against them.  Furthermore, had the Packers missed their own field goal attempt, the Steelers would have gotten the ball on their own 45 yard line, and only had to move 25 yards or so to get into range for a go-ahead field goal attempt...or worse, another touchdown.

The Packers have won ballgame after ballgame, particularly during their final six-game winning streak, with aggressive play.  Yet, in a moment where the team was struggling, McCarthy made a wise move that the coach on the other sideline did not, a decision to kick or not to kick.  It was a passive play, a "we're not going to risk it" play, but the smart play (no matter what Aikman says). 

It's like the boxer who is getting whipped in the ring by an opponent, who covers up and looks for ways to take the momentum away from the other guy.  Wrap him up, separate for a bit, get your wits about you, get saved by the bell.  The punt didn't "win the game" for the Packers, but played a critical part in putting them in a position to not get taking away the advantages enjoyed by the Steelers.

Yes, it's small ball and not nearly as sexy as a pick-six or forced fumble, but there are many moments like this that go overlooked in the course of a game that come down to coaching decisions.  And in this case, Mike Tomlin was outcoached by Mike McCarthy in a simple decision of risking field position to get a few points.


PackersRS said...

Pretty sure it was Tramon Williams that knocked the ball on the 4th down. Bush tried to intercept the batted pass, but ultimately couldn't.

Regarding key moments, I rank them as such:

1) Pickett/Matthews' forced fumble
2) Rodgers to Jennings down the seam, 3rd and 10
3) Nick Collins' pick-6
4) Tramon Williams, 4th down stop
5) Roethlisberger to Wallace deep, incomplete
6) Missed FG by the Steelers

I don't think one can elect a single key decisive moment, so though I did rank them in order, I listed 6 that held close importance IMHO.

C.D. Angeli said...

Oh, I agree with your list, RS...the big plays are exactly that...big plays.

It's the little things that amuse me, though. I even commented on Twitter at the time how pivotal that exchange was. Looking back on it and the field position it created when the Packers were on their heels, the whole game might have changed, and those big plays may not have happened.

IPB said...

I agree with PackersRS, ..CD

It sounds like you're splitting hairs, while trying to vent against TT & MM. Fact is, they got it done. They got rid of Favre and went to the SuperBowl... simple as that. With Favre, this season would not have gone this way. Facts is facts.

Enjoy it and know that every time the Packers have won the SuperBowl, they've gone right back and played in the next one. We just gotta find out who the AFC opponent might be.