Packers-Steelers: 5 things to watch
Green Bay, Pittsburgh meet for first time since Super Bowl
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (7-6-1) vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-8).
The time: 3:25 p.m. CST Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: CBS – WDJT (Ch. 58 in Milwaukee), WISC (Ch. 3 in Madison) and WFRV (Ch. 5 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots in the booth.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 87-48-1 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin is 74-44 including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as coach of the Steelers and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 18-14, although the Steelers have won seven of the last 10 regular-season meetings. The Packers won the most recent meeting, in Super Bowl XLV.
The rankings: The Packers’ fourth-ranked offense is No. 7 in rushing and No. 7 in passing. Their 26th-ranked defense is No. 25 against the run and No. 22 against the pass. The Steelers’ 18th-ranked offense is No. 31 in rushing and No. 11 in passing. Their 11th-ranked defense is No. 19 against the run and No. 8 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 2 1/2 points.
The injury report: Packers – Out: DE Johnny Jolly (shoulder/neck), TE Brandon Bostick (foot), QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone). Questionable: DE C.J. Wilson (ankle). Probable: ILB Brad Jones (ankle), RB Eddie Lacy (ankle), OLB Mike Neal (abdomen), OLB Nick Perry (foot), DT Ryan Pickett (knee).
Steelers – Probable: DE Brett Keisel (foot), WR Jerricho Cotchery (shoulder), TE Heath Miller (not injury related), S Troy Polamalu (not injury related), T Marcus Gilbert (ankle), T Kelvin Beachum (knee), NT Steve McLendon (ankle), WR Emmanuel Sanders (foot).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
‘Nobody’s underdog’: That was McCarthy’s famous phrase in 2010, when Matt Flynn was taking on the New England Patriots with Rodgers sidelined with a concussion. He didn’t deliver quite as pithy a quote this week while talking about his confidence in his team as it prepared for its seventh straight game without Rodgers, but he didn’t hesitate to talk tough in the wake of his announcement that Rodgers’ collarbone had not healed enough for Dr. Pat McKenzie to give him medical clearance to play.
“We feel that we can beat Pittsburgh with our football team. That’s why we prepared,” McCarthy said forcefully. “We came in here Monday morning preparing to beat Pittsburgh with Matt Flynn as the quarterback, stated that all along, was hopeful that Aaron’s situation would progress. As an organization we don’t feel like he’s ready to play. And as a football team, we’re confident about our opportunity against a very good football team coming in here Sunday.”
Certainly the Packers know the opportunity before them. Their playoff road is simple: Beat the Steelers, beat the Chicago Bears in the Dec. 29 regular-season finale at Soldier Field, and they win the NFC North and get a home game in the NFC Wild Card round Jan. 4 or 5.
“I think for the last couple weeks we've known we were (in a must-win situation). We started our playoffs two weeks ago, basically. We've all known that,” Flynn said. “But now we know 100 percent that we control our own destiny. Last week, we knew we still needed a little help. But I'll bet it fires us up a little bit more and hopefully inspires us to prepare a little bit harder."
After back-to-back comeback victories – down 21-10 to Atlanta and 26-3 to Dallas – the Packers are hoping to also be inspired to avoid an early deficit this week.
“You want to start every game fast. Obviously,” McCarthy said. “Hopefully what we practiced, we can come out of the gates firing.”
Fumble-rooskie: Alex Van Pelt did not want any part of the conversation. He simply praised Lacy and hurried along to the next topic.
“Don’t like to talk about it,” the Packers running backs coach said. “He’s doing a heck of a job.”
Yes, he is. Lacy has gone an incredible 242 carries without a fumble since fumbling against San Francisco in the regular-season opener. The longest active streak in the NFL belongs to Atlanta’s Steven Jackson, who has gone 606 carries without a fumble, according to Elias Sports Bureau. (Although Jackson did fumble after a reception during the streak.)
According to Lacy, he learned a valuable lesson from his first NFL fumble, having fought for additional yardage on the play before losing the ball. He wound up on the bench for more than a quarter.
“The only thing I did was pretty much let myself know when to give up. During that play, I tried to get extra yards and had the ball loose,” Lacy said. “It was a mistake on my behalf, so since then I’ve learned in certain situations to give up and go to the next play.”
That sounds odd coming from Lacy, who seemingly never stops fighting for yardage, but Lacy made a clear discintion.
“In that situation, I made a cut and I was stumbling trying to continue to keep my balance up and I had the ball low so he just knocked it out,” Lacy said. “Now, my pads are always square and I have good body leverage and I’m able to push and cover the ball with my hands.”
Weather or not: The National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning at midnight, and the forecast was calling for 4 to 7 inches of snow, with the heaviest arriving Sunday morning. Whether the snow would linger long enough to impact the game, which doesn’t kick off until after 3 o’clock, is unclear, but the Packers were expecting the worst in their preparation, going outside for 11-on-11 work on Friday. But McCarthy suggested that the snow before the game might be a greater issue.
“We’ll watch it. We’re ready to play in snow,” McCarthy said. “We know where we live, so nothing will surprise us. I’m more interested in the weather two hours before the game and during the course of the game. I understand we do have some big weather out there coming.”
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum was prepping his guys for the weather having the greatest impact in the kicking and return games.
“I think you have to deal with the obvious. You’ve got poor footing. When the ball hits the ground, it doesn’t travel very far, usually. Those are issues,” Slocum said. “Fielding the ball when it’s snowing is an issue. The wind creates another issue. It’s just being able to have situational awareness in dealing with the conditions of the day and manage possession of the football the best way you can.”
The bad news for the Packers is that they won’t be facing a dome team or a team from the South – the Steelers are used to such climate challenges.
“It was 9 degrees last game here, Cleveland was 6 degrees,” an unimpressed Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “So we still get our cold.”
Letdown prevention: Even with their playoff destiny in their hands, McCarthy entered the week worried the possible hangover of last Sunday’s historic comeback. Only the 1982 Packers, who rallied from a 23-0 halftime deficit against the Los Angeles Rams in the season opener, had rallied from as many as 23 points down to win.
“I’m concerned about letdown,” McCarthy confessed at midweek. “History will tell you your team is open for that. Anytime you rise to a level of performance that our team rose to in the second half you have to be ready for a letdown. So, that’s something I look at every single week when I set the practice plan, exactly how much we’re going to do, and we address it with our football team.”
It will be interesting to see if the Steelers, who after an 0-4 start have shown impressive resilience. They are trying to avoid their first losing season in a decade and had an impressive 30-20 victory over AFC North-leading Cincinnati last Sunday night.
“I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said of a possible letdown. “If you were to let down now, I think you’re in the wrong situation because now we actually control our own destiny. I would say maybe a couple weeks ago, we were kind of thinking we might be out of it and everything, but now we have a great shot to win this game, and the next one and make the playoffs, so I don’t know why anyone would back off the pedal at all. I think guys have an extra boost of energy. We see what’s in front of us and look forward to the challenge.”
Old school: Veteran defensive coordinators Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau bunked in together when they arrived in Pittsburgh in 1992 under coach Bill Cowher, and they remain “very good friends,” according to Capers, to this day. While they don’t have the same coaching style – “Really totally different personalities in terms of how they operate, but great teachers, and great motivators, and great human beings,” said Packers safeties coach Darren Perry, who played for both with the Steelers – they are legends in the business.
They’ve also both faced challenges and criticism during their careers, and Capers’ group has drawn plenty of that this season. His unit comes into the game ranked 26th in yards allowed and tied for 21st in scoring defense, but he’s said on multiple occasions that he’s not looking to call it a career anytime soon. LeBeau is 76; Capers is 63.
“Dick is a very good friend. We went into Pittsburgh together. We roomed together when we were first there. He’s an amazing guy,” Capers said this week. “I think you saw in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech that if he would’ve retired when everybody told him he should’ve retired, he wouldn’t have won two Super Bowls. He wouldn’t have had his high school jersey retired. They named a building after him. He went through all these things that he said, ‘If I would’ve retired when they told me I should’ve retired, all this wouldn’t have happened to me.’
“He said my mother taught me life is to be lived and you should live it to the fullest. He says that’s what I believe. To me, that kind of exemplifies his approach and he’s still at the top of his game. He’s been doing it.
“I respect him as much as anybody in coaching. He had a Hall of Fame career as a player. It was a lot of years before he was recognized for what he’d done as a player. To coach and coach at the level he has for all these years, I don’t know if anybody else has ever done it.”
What a tough call. The Packers clearly have more to play for, and have home-field advantage in their favor. Still, it’s hard to shake the nagging feeling that their recent run of good fortune without Rodgers is about to run out. What a colossal disappointment it would be for them if they lost this game while Rodgers sits out his seventh straight game, then he gets cleared for the finale at Chicago when it’s too little, too late. The Packers won’t be able to catch the Bears for the division title if they lose and the Bears beat Philadelphia Sunday night. But the guess here is that they win with Flynn, setting up a winner-take-all game next week in Chicago … and a very interesting week as Rodgers most assuredly will push to play. Packers 23, Steelers 20. (Season record: 11-2-1)
– Jason Wilde
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