NFL Preview - Green Bay (9-4) at Pittsburgh (6-7)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Debating the chances of the Pittsburgh Steelers making the playoffs after winning their sixth Super Bowl title would be a classic excerpt for Ripley's Believe it or Not. The Steelers still do have an outside shot at capturing a Wild Card berth despite a season-high five-game losing streak, and will try to stay afloat in postseason discussions when they face a Green Bay Packers team riding a five-game winning streak Sunday at Heinz Field.
The Steelers haven't dropped six straight since the 1999 campaign, and their 6-2 start to the season is ancient history. What's also antiquated for Pittsburgh is its ability to put away inferior teams, and recent losses to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland justify that. The defending champion Steelers, who suffered a 13-6 setback to the Browns last week, are hoping their most recent title run doesn't produce another missed opportunity at defending the crown, much like the team did after winning Super Bowl XL. The Steelers went 8-8 the following season and missed out on the playoffs.
It looks as if that may happen again unless head coach Mike Tomlin can transform his stoic glare from the sidelines into his players' heads this Sunday versus a red-hot Packers team. Protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be a novel idea as well, since he's been sacked 38 times this season and went down eight times at Cleveland, which ended a 12-game slide in the series.
Left guard Chris Kemoeatu will miss the Green Bay game with right wrist and right knee injuries and will be replaced by rookie Ramon Foster. Tomlin doesn't want to take any chances with Kemoeatu and will "try to get him at a better physical state" before making any decisions on his availability.
On an encouraging note for the Steelers, they have won 16 of their past 21 regular-season games versus teams in the NFC dating back to 2003. Pittsburgh will host Baltimore next week before wrapping up the regular season in Miami.
The Packers won't let history get in the way in their quest for a playoff berth, although the NFC North will likely soon be wrapped up by Minnesota. Green Bay still controls its own postseason destiny at 9-4 and recorded a fifth consecutive triumph with a 21-14 decision over the division-rival Chicago Bears last weekend. The Packers can punch their ticket to the postseason with a win in the Steel City and some help around the league,
Green Bay has been riding the hot hand of quarterback Aaron Rodgers during its winning run. Rodgers is fourth in the NFL with a 102.5 quarterback rating, and much like Roethlisberger, has been sacked a ton of times. However, the Packers' front line has yielded just five sacks over the last three weeks. The team has been constantly shuffling the offensive line due to injury and performance issues, but have been anchored by Chad Clifton, Daryn Colledge, Scott Wells, Josh Sitton and Mark Tauscher the past four weeks.
That same lineup is expected to make its fifth consecutive start together Sunday in Pittsburgh. After visiting the Steelers, the Packers will return home to face Seattle before closing out the regular season on January 3 against the Arizona Cardinals.
Green Bay has an 18-13 lead in its all-time series with Pittsburgh, which dates back to the 1933 season, but has dropped its last two meetings with the Steelers. The Packers were 20-10 home losers when they faced the Steelers in 2005, and dropped a 27-20 decision when last visiting the Steel City in 1998. Green Bay is 0-3 in Pittsburgh since last winning there in 1970.
The Packers' Mike McCarthy and Tomlin will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Rodgers (3,579 yards, 25 TD, 7 INT) is having a Pro Bowl-type season and is fourth in the NFL in both passer rating and touchdown passes, and sixth in total yards. He didn't have to do much in his last game against Chicago because running back Ryan Grant performed most of the work, and passed for 180 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Rodgers, the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for October, will be challenging Lynn Dickey's franchise record for passing yards in a single season in the final weeks. Dickey threw for 4,458 yards in 1983. Rodgers also leads all NFL quarterbacks with 271 rushing yards on 53 carries, and is the league's top-ranked passer (127.9) on third down. No other quarterback has thrown for as many yards (1,295) on third down as Rodgers, who shares the lead in touchdown passes (11) in that situation. When given enough time, which he has during the winning streak, Rodgers has plenty of talent to throw to, especially leading wideout Donald Driver (58 receptions, 887 yards, 6 TD), who leads the team in both receiving yards and catches but was held to 11 yards on two grabs against the Bears. He needs 113 yards for his sixth straight 1,000-yard campaign and has caught a pass in 124 consecutive games. Greg Jennings (56 receptions, 855 yards, 2 TD), Jermichael Finley (39 receptions, 3 TD) and James Jones (26 receptions, 4 TD) are also at Rodgers' disposal.
The Steelers held the Browns' passing offense in check during last week's loss, but will face a legitimate aerial assault in Green Bay. Pittsburgh is 13th in pass defense, allowing 209.2 yards per game, and will rely on top cornerbacks William Gay (67 tackles, 1 sack) and Ike Taylor (54 tackles) to contain Driver and Jennings on Sunday. The Steelers will be without safety Troy Polamalu (20 tackles, 3 INT) because of a knee injury, and he has missed eight games this season. Polamalu still leads the team with three interceptions after posting his third pick in a Week 9 victory over Denver. Tyrone Carter (49 tackles, sack, 2 INT) has done a decent job in Polamalu's absence, but still needs help on deep routes. That's where free safety Ryan Clark (71 tackles, 2 INT) adds some stability to the defense. Clark is second on the team in tackles and registered six against the Browns. The defense hopes the home-field advantage will pay off Sunday, as Pittsburgh is 35-11 at Heinz Field over the past five-plus seasons, including a 4-2 record in 2009.
Grant (1,068 rushing yards, 7 TD) eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second straight year after gaining 137 yards and posting a pair of scores on 20 carries against the Bears last week. He has hit the century mark in rushing three times in 2009 and hopes to get rolling again against a tough Pittsburgh defense. Grant, who is in the running for his first career Pro Bowl selection, ranks fourth in the NFC and seventh overall in the NFL with 1,068 yards this season. His 1,265 total yards from scrimmage ranks fourth in the NFC and seventh in the NFL. Veteran Ahman Green (89 rushing yards) is still searching for his first rushing touchdown in his second stint with the Packers, who are 13th in the league with an average of 120.2 rushing yards per contest.
Much like Mendenhall, Grant will face a true test on Sunday against the Steelers top-rated run defense. Under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers are yielding just 84.9 rushing yards a contest this season and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 31 straight regular-season games. They have permitted just three enemy backs to reach that mark in the past 85 games. A lot of the credit goes to the linebackers, and in particular leading tackler James Farrior (83 tackles, 3 sacks). Sack leader James Harrison (70 tackles, 10 sacks), Lawrence Timmons (64 tackles, 6 sacks) and LaMarr Woodley (45 tackles, 9 sacks) are all Pro Bowl-caliber players as well and hope to make the Packers beat them through the air. Woodley has a sack in each of the past five games, with seven over that stretch. Defensive end Brett Keisel (49 tackles, 3 sacks) and nose guard Casey Hampton (33 tackles, 2 sacks) will also provide pressure up front. Keisel is listed as questionable Sunday with a neck injury for the Steelers, who are second in the NFL with 39 sacks.
WHEN THE STEELERS HAVE THE BALL
Roethlisberger (3,346 passing yards, 19 TD, 11 INT) and the Steelers are coming off a miserable offensive performance last week against the Browns, as the big signal-caller passed for only 201 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. It didn't help that Roethlisberger was sacked eight times, which bogged down his ability to find his open targets. There weren't many opportunities anyway, since Cleveland played an uncharacteristically excellent game on defense. Reigning Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes (70 receptions, 1,080 yards, 3 TD) caught six balls for 90 yards in the recent loss and went over 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career. Holmes has six or more receptions in six straight contests. Veteran Hines Ward (76 receptions, 943 yards, 6 TD) has caught a pass in a team-record 175 consecutive games and needs one more 100-yard game to tie John Stallworth (25) for most in franchise history. Ward has hit that mark four times already this season. Tight end Heath Miller (61 receptions, 5 TD) hasn't found the end zone in three straight weeks and owns seven catches over that span for a Pittsburgh pass attack ranked 12th in the league (249.0 ypg).
Under new defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, the Packers have yielded an NFC-low 272.0 yards per game and have surrendered an average of 14.2 points during their win streak. Capers' bunch has also forced 33 turnovers this season -- including nine interceptions over the last three games -- to rank second in the league in takeaways behind only New Orleans. Green Bay is third in pass defense (187.0 ypg) and will be ready for the challenge Roethlisberger and company have up their sleeve. Luckily for the Packers, they have top corners Charles Woodson (60 tackles, 2 sacks, 8 INT) and Tramon Williams (41 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) roaming the secondary. Woodson, who is probable with a shoulder injury, is a strong candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and his six interception returns for scores since 2006 leads all NFL players. Woodson's four forced fumbles this year ranks second among all NFL defensive backs. Safeties Nick Collins (41 tackles, 1 sack, 6 INT) and Atari Bigby (32 tackles, 1 INT) must keep Holmes and Ward in front of them, especially the latter due to his strength and route-running skills.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall (940 rushing yards, 5 TD) needs 60 more yards for his first 1,000-yard season. The second-year back out of Illinois was held to 53 yards on 16 touches against Cleveland and has just one touchdown in his last seven games. In his 10 games as the starter this year, Mendenhall has 895 yards rushing on 187 carries (4.8 avg.) with five touchdowns. Pittsburgh will have a tough time trying to find holes against Green Bay's stingy run defense, but it has the home crowd on its side for this showdown. The Steelers are only 16th in rushing offense this season, averaging 113.7 yards per game on the ground. In injury news regarding the offensive line, center Justin Hartwig is questionable against the Packers with a knee injury. Former starting running back Willie Parker (259 rushing yards) has filled in sparingly for a Pittsburgh offense rated fourth in the AFC and ninth in the NFL with an average of 362.5 yards per game.
Green Bay is a tough team to run against because of its front three and a talented group of linebackers led by rookie Clay Matthews (39 tackles, 8 sacks), who is making a case for NFC Rookie of the Year and recorded a sack against the Bears last week. Veteran linebacker Nick Barnett (84 tackles, 3 sacks) leads the team in stops, but is questionable for Sunday with a knee problem. Barnett had six tackles last week. Linebacker Brad Jones (22 tackles, 1 sack) has filled in nicely with Pro Bowl honoree Aaron Kampman sidelined after a season-ending knee injury, and joins Matthews and tackle B.J. Raji (19 tackles, 1 sack) as three Green Bay rookies to post a sack this year, the first time that's happened since 1987. The Packers are second in the NFL in total defense (272.0 ypg), but could be without linemen Ryan Pickett (32 tackles) and Johnny Jolly (34 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) for Sunday. Both players are listed as questionable with their injuries.
With two tough defenses going head-to-head in the Steel City, it will be hard to generate points for fantasy owners. The Steelers hope Roethlisberger can revert back to his old form on Sunday and get the offense off to a hot start with Holmes and Ward the big contributors. Miller has been used on a limited basis as of late and needs to be more involved versus Green Bay, especially in the red zone, to be a fantasy factor. Mendenhall may be a risky pick this week, but he's playing at home behind a cohesive line. Pittsburgh's defense has been killing the team during the five-game losing streak, but is primed for a better showing this week since things have already hit the fan.
Rodgers, Jennings and Driver will have to get rolling early, because Grant will experience difficulties finding holes against Capers' 3-4 scheme. Rodgers holds tremendous upside in this matchup. Green Bay's defense is also a respectable unit and is a good choice for Sunday.
The Packers' playoff party will be put on ice inside a cold Heinz Field on Sunday, leaving them with next week's home game versus Seattle as a possible portal to the postseason. Green Bay has won five straight games, thanks to solid play from the offensive line and superb passing out of Rodgers, to inch closer to a second playoff berth in three years. Unfortunately for the Packers, Pittsburgh doesn't appreciate feel-good stories being told in their own backyard and will unleash a solid defensive effort with its postseason chances hanging in the balance. There's an outside shot the Steelers can make the playoffs if they get help from around the league, which is why Sunday's win will be a step in the right direction.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Steelers 27, Packers 17
12/17 19:27:49 ET