The Past: I’ve mentioned notable games of the past in this series (the Ice Bowl, Aaron Rodgers dismantling of the Falcons in the 2010 divisional game), but perhaps the most important game in the last decade for the Packers was their win in Super Bowl XLV in 2010 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Not only did it cement quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ position as one of the NFL’s elite players but it also justified Ted Thompson’s 6 year “draft and develop” philosophy which brought the Packers back from a salary cap nightmare. Fans will remember Clay Matthew’s “It is time” moment of stripping the ball away from Rashard Mendenhall which preserved a Packers 4 point lead in the 4th quarter, but perhaps the biggest defensive play came from defensive tackle Howard Green, who knocked quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s pass into the arms of safety Nick Collins, who returned the ball for a touchdown and at least historically sealed away the fate of the Steelers right then (no team has gotten a interception returned for a touchdown and lost the Super Bowl).
Moving back further, the Steelers and Packers last regular season game occurred in 2009 which quickly became a shootout; Rodgers threw for an impressive 383 yards but Roethlisberger proved even more dangerous, finishing the game with an astonishing 503 yards. It also marked the rise of Jermichael Finley, who moved from a up and coming player to a serious receiving threat, which would continue until his injury in 2010.
The Present: The Steelers have been effectively eliminated from the playoffs; the Cincinnati Bengals have run away with the AFC North and are almost definitely going to win the division this year. Baltimore trails behind Cincinnati, but also has a shot at a wild card berth. Pittsburgh unfortunately only is predicted to get in as a wildcard team .8% of the time according to Football Outsiders, effectively making this game more of a statement game more than anything else. Furthermore, the Steelers have always been a very deliberate and conservative organization and the coaching staff has not been rumored to be on the hot seat, this game probably does not have much meaning to the Steelers, aside for maybe extracting some revenge against the Packers for their Super Bowl loss.
On the other hand, with the Packers beating the Cowboys and more remarkably the Lions losing to a kicker, the Packers have effectively eliminated the Lions from the playoffs and if they win out they will claim the NFC North division for another year. Hopefully this dichotomy of urgency gives the Packers a slight edge. However most important again will be the health of Aaron Rodgers; obviously Matt Flynn is no where close to Rodgers, but Flynn has been just good enough to win his fair share of games, which is really all that can be asked from a backup quarterback. At present, reports seem to indicate that Rodgers is unlikely to play again this week, which is huge advantage for the Steelers but they will probably have to prepare for the event that Rodgers does in fact make the game as a contingency, which again may help the Packers slightly.
The Future: The biggest issue with the Steelers is that they are getting old and while old players typically are in decline players, and more importantly old players are also more expensive players. The Steelers are definitely on of the more “expensive” teams in the NFL, obviously two Super Bowl wins commands Ben Roethlisberger a sizable contract but their roster is also filled with aging, expensive player such as linebackers Lamar Woodley, safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and tight end Heath Miller. Luckily, the Steelers front office is actually aware of the problem unlike the Dallas Cowboys or the Al Davis-era Raiders and has begun a mini-rebuild, notable veterans like outside linebacker James Harrison, offensive linemen Willie Colon, running back Rashard Mendenhall and nose tackle Casey Hampton were all let go this offseason. Furthermore dynamic wide receiver Mike Wallace was allowed to sign with the Miami Dolphins, and will likely net them a high compensatory draft pick. Still, the Steelers are not quite finished with the rebuild and several painful moves will probably be made this offseason, notably Ben Roethlisberger may be asked for a contract restructure and the Steelers will have to figure out what they want to do with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, defensive end Brett Kiesel and outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who are all slated to be free agents this offseason.
The Steelers have also been spotty in the draft recently; the Steelers have been very offensive linemen heavy at the beginning of the draft with mixed results; Maurkice Pouncey is one of the better young centers in the draft, but guard David DeCastro has been battling injuries through his short career and hasn’t made the impact expected from a 1st round guard. But at least DeCastro isn’t tackle Mike Adams, who not only has played poorly and might be switched to tight end but was also stabbed during an attempted robbery this season. On defense, Jason Worilds only started to get hot this season and will be one of the more interesting players to keep track of since the Steelers also invested a first round draft choice on Jarvis Jones this year. Defensive Tackle Casey Hayward has also been quiet so far, but defensive linemen in the 3-4 scheme typically don’t have many metrics so his performance is more likely based on the assessment from his coaches. Perhaps the best draft pick in the last couple years for the Steelers has been running back Le’Veon Bell, who has resuscitated the Steeler’s image as a smash-mouthed running team and provided some balance to the Steelers long downfield passing game (which has been altered somewhat with the hire of Todd Haley). Arguably, the Packers managed to get the better deal with their rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who essentially has been the catalyst for the Packers offense since Rodgers’ injury.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.