Green Bay Packers (9-4) at Pittsburgh Steelers (6-7)
Kickoff: 3:15 p.m. Sunday.
TV: Fox (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Pam Oliver).
The series: 32nd regular-season meeting. Packers lead 18-13. The Steelers have dominated the series in the interconference opponents' irregular meetings the last 35 years, winning six of eight games. Pittsburgh has won the last two matchups dating to 1998, most recently 20-10 at Green Bay in 2005. The Steelers have won three in a row at home, going back to 1980. The Packers' last win in Pittsburgh was in 1970. This is the teams' first meeting at Heinz Field. The Steelers' first-ever road game was played at City Stadium in 1933, with the Packers winning 47-0.
Keys to the game
The Packers' pass protection has been better of late, but the 48 times QB Aaron Rodgers has been sacked still leads the league — by eight. The offensive line will be under pressure to pick up the correct assignments against the Steelers' well-disguised blitz packages. When given time, Rodgers will be aggressive against a Pittsburgh secondary that is soft underneath. With the NFL's top two run defenses on the field, the Steelers' much-maligned offensive line also has its work cut out. But coach Mike Tomlin still wants an increased focus on the ground game to help alleviate some of the pressure on QB Ben Roethlisberger.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy is a Pittsburgh native. ... RB Rashard Mendenhall needs 60 rushing yards to become the seventh Steeler to reach 1,000. ... The Packers rank seventh in the NFL on offense (13th rushing, ninth passing) and second on defense (second rushing, third passing). The Steelers rank ninth on offense (16th rushing, 12th passing) and fourth on defense (first rushing, 13th passing). Those obviously are good numbers. So why are they separated by three wins? The Packers are a league-best plus-18 in turnovers while the Steelers are tied for 24th at minus-5. ... A.J. Hawk (ankle) was added to the injury list on Saturday morning. ... Troy Polamalu is out for Pittsburgh. In the teams' last matchup, on Nov. 6, 2005, Polamalu returned a Brett Favre fumble 77 yards for a touchdown as the Steelers won 20-10 at Lambeau Field.
Packers: Out — LB Jeremy Thompson (neck). Doubtful — CB Brandon Underwood (hip). Questionable — NT Ryan Pickett (hamstring). Probable — LB Nick Barnett (knee); LB A.J. Hawk (ankle); DE Johnny Jolly (knee); CB Charles Woodson (shoulder).
Packers: WR Patrick Williams, FB John Kuhn, CB Brandon Underwood, S Matt Giordano, T Breno Giacomini, T Allen Barbre, DE Michael Montgomery, LB Jeremy Thompson.
Steelers: WR Limas Sweed, Charlie Batch (Third QB), CB Keenan Lewis, S Troy Polamalu, G Kraig Urbik, G Chris Kemoeatu, DE Sunny Harris, DE Nick Eason.
Inside the Steelers
Pittsburgh, which won six of its first eight games this season after winning a Super Bowl, is desperate to win one as the losses and criticism pile up on the Steelers.
Even one of their most admired former teammates has taken potshots at them.
"The Steelers are done," Jerome Bettis said on a national radio show this week. "When you lose your spirit, then everything is pretty much gone. And that's what I saw when they hit the field against the Cleveland Browns. When you don't have the enthusiasm to get up for a game in which you have to win, then it tells me that the leadership isn't there."
This comes on the heels of safety Ryan Clark lashing out at the Pittsburgh media and Steelers fans, and after Hines Ward questioned quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's intent when he was held out of their Nov. 29 game in Baltimore because of headaches after a concussion.
Roethlisberger said then that Ward's comments "hurt" and Thursday he had words for his former teammate, Bettis.
"Jerome who?" Roethlisberger wondered. "I guess he's entitled to his opinion. He's not on this team, he's not in this locker room. So he's just taking an outside view as all of you guys are. If you don't know I don't think you should speak on it."
Their five-game losing streak, however, has been the talk of Pittsburgh and across the football world as they try to avoid tying their longest losing streak in 40 years when they play Green Bay, winners of five straight, Sunday in Heinz Field.
"Beat anybody," nose tackle Casey Hampton declared. "You don't give a damn who you beat at this point. Just getting back on track, something to get you out of the funk, getting us out of this mentality of losing games."
James Jones breaks loose vs. Grant Mason in the 2007 preseason game.
Keith Srakocic/AP Images
Those pronounced differences aside, these are two teams on a collision course. They rank 1-2 in rushing defense, with the Steelers just a sliver ahead of the Packers. They rank 2-4 in total defense, with the Packers knocked back a spot from the perch they occupied the previous two weeks. They rank 3-4 in ball control, with the Packers' 33:25 time of possession a few precious seconds better than the Steelers' 33:08.
Good luck to either team trying to run the football against the other. While the Packers would love to get Ryan Grant on track in the same 62-yard-touchdown fashion on the first play from scrimmage in their last game, look for head coach Mike McCarthy to go liberal with the quick-strike passing attack in his homecoming to Pittsburgh. The Steelers are vulnerable underneath in their zone coverage, which is where Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and especially tight end Jermichael Finley could have a field day if Aaron Rodgers can pull the trigger quickly against a formidable pass rush.
Ben Roethlisberger is even more prone than Rodgers, who has been sacked a league-high 47 times, to hold onto the ball too long. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers undoubtedly picked up a few things from the Cleveland Browns, of all teams, in how they were relentless with their array of pressure schemes in sacking Roethlisberger eight times in the Steelers' upset loss last week. Green Bay is hell-bent on keeping Roethlisberger, who has the third-highest sack total with 38, in the pocket and not give him the time and the space to play pitch and catch with the tandem of Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.