Report Card: Packers-Steelers

As has been the case for most of the season, the Packers earned strong grades in the passing game -- both offensively with Aaron Rodgers and defensively with Tramon Williams and Nick Collins.

PASSING OFFENSE: B -- Aaron Rodgers cemented his rapid ascension to being one of the league's best young quarterbacks, if not the best, by willing the adversity-challenged Packers to their first Super Bowl title in 14 years and earning game MVP honors to boot. Rodgers didn't have to be perfect, a lofty standard he sets for himself, but he was brilliant when the team needed him to be. He finished 24-of-39 for 304 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Rodgers was on the money with darts of 29 yards to Jordy Nelson on a go route for the game's first touchdown, 21 yards to Greg Jennings on a touchdown throw that split two defenders down the middle, 8 yards to an open Jennings for another touchdown on a corner route in the back of the end zone and 31 yards to Jennings (four catches, 64 yards) on a third-and-10 seam route that kept alive Green Bay's time-consuming drive that resulted in a pivotal field goal late in the game. Rodgers' completion percentage and yardage and touchdown outputs would have been more dazzling had his wideouts not let five passes fall to the turf. James Jones will have the offseason to flush the drops out of his system, letting another potential big-play touchdown go off his fingers open on a slant early in the second half. Nelson had three drops, but he acquitted himself with a 38-yard catch-and-run in Steelers territory to set up a touchdown that bolstered the Packers' dwindling lead to 28-17 early in the final quarter. Nelson became a household name around the world, picking up the slack for an injured Donald Driver with nine receptions for 140 yards as he was targeted 15 times. Rodgers was sacked three times, but he held onto the ball too long in two of those instances. Tackles Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga responded to a tall task and did a solid job against pass-rushing linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, respectively.

RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus -- Rookie James Starks averaged a healthy 4.7 yards per carry, but he had less than half of the opportunities to carry the football that he received, on average, in the first three postseason games. Starks ground out 52 yards in the only 11 rushing attempts for the team. Half of Starks' production came on explosive runs of 12 and 14 yards. The first led to the initial touchdown connection between Rodgers and Jennings that put the Packers ahead 21-3 in the second quarter. Starks' second big run came in the critical final scoring drive of 10 plays and 70 yards. Starks also hit open lanes with authority and quickness for 8 and 7 yards. Rodgers for the one and only time in 19 games this season didn't have a run - he kneeled twice in victory formation at the end of the game.


Williams' game-ending interception.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
PASS DEFENSE: B-plus -- It only made sense that it was the right hand of cornerback Tramon Williams that nudged the football just enough for it to come out of the hands of a leaping Mike Wallace for a Super Bowl-clinching incompletion on fourth-and-5 for the Steelers in their territory with 49 seconds to play. Williams was the defensive star of the postseason for the Packers, picking off Michael Vick's pass in the end zone in the closing seconds to seal the wild-card win at Philadelphia and responding the following week with two interceptions and the 70-yard touchdown return that spurred the rout of top-seeded Atlanta in the divisional round. To be sure, though, Williams didn't have to do it alone, even with the Green Bay secondary depleted by a game-ending broken collarbone for veteran leader Charles Woodson late in the first half and a shoulder injury that kept rookie third corner Sam Shields out for about a quarter of play. Safety Nick Collins was the beneficiary of hefty tackle Howard Green's hit on Ben Roethlisberger and resulting fluttering pass down field that Collins snared with ease and returned 37 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Dime back Jarrett Bush, who has been a liability in coverage, was in the right place at the right time to do something right, telegraphing a Roethlisberger throw over the middle and beating a crossing Wallace to the spot for a pick that led to seven more points for the Packers. Bush, however, gave up an 8-yard touchdown throw to Hines Ward (seven catches, 78 yards) in the final moments of the first half as the Steelers mounted their comeback from the 21-3 hole. Shields, a hero in the NFC Championship win at Chicago with two interceptions, struggled when he was on the field and was beaten on deep throws by Roethlisberger (25-of-40, 263 yards) of 37 yards to Antwaan Randle El and 25 yards for a touchdown to Wallace (nine catches, 89 yards). Outside linebacker Frank Zombo had the only sack of Roethlisberger, of the coverage variety.

RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus -- The opportunistic Packers turned all three takeaways into touchdowns. The last golden turnover came on the first play of the fourth quarter. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews and end Ryan Pickett sandwiched Rashard Mendenhall on a run off right tackle, causing a fumble that linebacker Desmond Bishop recovered with the Steelers in striking distance in Green Bay territory down just 21-17. It was one of five stops behind the line of scrimmage on run plays, four involving Mendenhall. Bishop had three tackles for losses. The negative plays, however, were outnumbered by several big runs by the Steelers' committee of ball carriers. Pittsburgh racked up 126 rushing yards and averaged a gaudy 5.5 yards per carry. The powerful Mendenhall accounted for half of the output, breaking free for explosive runs of 15 and 17 yards and dragging fill-in cornerback Pat Lee across the goal line on an 8-yard touchdown in the Steelers' second-half surge. On the play before the scoring run, Collins committed a cardinal sin of breaking to the inside as Isaac Redman took off to the outside for a 16-yard gain. The defense also lost containment when it had Mewelde Moore stopped up the middle on third-and-1 and allowed him to bounce outside for a 7-yard run. Roethlisberger scrambled four times for 31 yards, including an 18-yard pickup. He also worked the option pitch to perfection on a two-point conversion by Randle El in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 28-25.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D -- In a familiar story line this season, the Packers managed to win a game in spite of horrid play by their special-teams units. The game started inauspiciously with Antonio Brown's 38-yard kickoff return out of the end zone, and things unraveled from there. Williams muffed the Pittsburgh punt four plays later when Shields ran into him but had the wherewithal to fall on the football at the bottom of an ensuing pile-up. Williams later slapped Anthony Madison across the face mask after standing idly by on a rolling punt, drawing one of three special-teams penalties by the Packers in the third quarter. Williams didn't have any return yards on punts, and the combination of Lee and Nelson averaged a measly 21 yards in three kickoff returns. Tim Masthay had a so-so performance punting the football after emerging as an unsung hero in the postseason, averaging just 40.5 gross yards and 36.3 net yards with one touchback in six tries. Tom Crabtree, who was flagged for a phantom face-mask call on a punt return by Brown early in the second half, took one for the team with the game on the line. Keyaron Fox shoved Crabtree away from a Pittsburgh kickoff return, drawing an unnecessary-roughness penalty and forcing the Steelers to start their ill-fated final series at their 13-yard line with less than 2 minutes left and needing a touchdown. Mason Crosby's 23-yard field goal preceded that incident, a big three points to ensure the Steelers couldn't try to force overtime with a field goal.

COACHING: B-plus -- Mike McCarthy's utmost confidence in his team throughout Super Bowl week, whether it was conveyed publicly or kept in house, was met with the greatest payoff Sunday night at Texas Stadium. His name is forever linked to Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi and Mike Holmgren as the coaches who led the Packers to the top of the NFL mountain. The Packers, in arguably improbable fashion, ran the table of winning all four games in the playoffs away from Lambeau Field as a No. 6 seed. The ever-growing trust McCarthy has in his hotshot quarterback was never more evident, as the play-caller showed his hand with an aggressive plan of attack from the get-go and played to Rodgers' strengths by spreading things out. The pass-run balance of previous postseason games was out of whack, but the disparity was due more to Rodgers' having the latitude to go with the effective pass in his presnap checks. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers didn't blink when he lost Woodson for the last two-plus quarters and Shields for a short time. Capers adjusted by going with more zone coverage to limit how much havoc Roethlisberger could have wreaked against a shaky secondary. Capers' gamble of not cranking up the pressure in Pittsburgh's final drive paid off. Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum endured what could have been a title-denying performance by his units.


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