Packers-Steelers Report Card

The grades are in, with a horrendous pass defense leading the way in the Packers' gut-wrenching 37-36 loss at Pittsburgh. On the plus side was the Packers' passing offense, highlighted by Aaron Rodgers on third down and Brandon Jackson picking up the blitz.


Pittsburgh's vulnerability in zone coverage prompted a decidedly pass-oriented game plan. Aaron Rodgers threw the football a career-high 48 times, matched his personal best with three touchdowns, came within a yard of his high watermark of 384 yards (attained in Week 4 this season) and didn't have an interception for the fifth time in the last six games. Rodgers and receiver Greg Jennings also wound up with personal-high milestones with their 83-yard touchdown connection in the first quarter. For all the chucking Rodgers did, however, he completed only 26 passes. He was off the mark with a handful of throws early in the game, and his receiving corps let him down with a handful of drops in the first half. Rodgers was clutch on third down — highlighted by the touchdown passes to Jennings, tight end Jermichael Finley (11 yards) and James Jones (24 yards on third-and-14 to put the Packers momentarily ahead 36-30 late in the game); a 49-yard catch-and-run by Donald Driver; and Rodgers' 14-yard scoring scramble. The protection against the vaunted pass-rush tandem of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley was mostly solid; the Steelers had only one sack. The athletic and unstoppable Finley (targeted 10 times, with a career-high nine receptions for 74 yards) has overtaken Jennings (five catches for 118 yards) and Driver as Rodgers' most reliable target as the season winds down. Running back Brandon Jackson was a dominant performer in recognizing and picking up blitzes.


If not for Ryan Grant's 24-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that put the Packers ahead for the first time at 28-27, Green Bay's grade in this category might as well have been incomplete. Not counting three keepers by Rodgers, the Packers had all of nine rushing attempts by their backs. As it was, the 12 official runs tied for the sixth-lowest mark in franchise history. The 60 rushing yards is a season low. Grant had eight carries for 37 yards. His breakaway touchdown out to the left side — a mini-facsimile of his 62-yard scoring run the previous week at the Chicago Bears — was out of the I-formation with Korey Hall as the lead blocker. Receiver Jordy Nelson had a key downfield block on the play. Jackson ran right into blocking tight end Donald Lee and was stuffed for a 1-yard gain on a third-and-3 play in the red zone. Rodgers, who totaled 22 yards on the ground, converted third-and-inches with a sneak.


The worst performance ever by the Packers' defending the pass can't be immortalized as an absolute failure because Green Bay did sack an occasionally accommodating Ben Roethlisberger five times. All of the takedowns were registered by linebackers, led by two apiece from bookend rookie starters Clay Matthews and Brad Jones. Matthews had another sack, along with resulting forced fumble and fumble recovery, taken away on a replay reversal. He effectively whipped hulking left tackle Max Starks throughout the game with speed rushes. Other than that, the Packers' previously No. 2-rated pass defense was turned into a laughingstock by Roethlisberger, who threw for 503 yards and three touchdowns on 29-of-46 accuracy. The yardage total is a Steelers record and eclipsed Green Bay's all-time high for generosity — 464 yards by the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb in 2004. Roethlisberger delivered 12 throws of 16-plus yards and 10 passes of at least 20 yards. None bigger than his 19-yard dart to rookie Mike Wallace in the end zone as time expired to lift the Steelers to the victory. Rarely used backup cornerback Josh Bell erred in letting Wallace get in front of him to make the spectacular catch falling out of bounds while keeping both feet inbounds. One play earlier, defensive end Cullen Jenkins failed to bring down Roethlisberger for a sack that would have ended the game. Pittsburgh's first play from scrimmage was a 60-yard touchdown heave to Wallace, whom nickel back Jarrett Bush inexplicably allowed to get wide open behind the man-to-man coverage. Bush also was victimized on a 54-yard deep ball to Hines Ward (seven catches for 126 yards) and a beautiful 20-yard grab by tight end Heath Miller on third-and-15 in the waning seconds of the Steelers' decisive game-ending drive of 86 yards. Miller (seven receptions for 118 yards) also was a thorn in the side of linebackers A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett and even nose tackle B.J. Raji, who was no match dropping into zone coverage. The Packers were guilty of three coverage penalties in the fateful final possession, including illegal contact by linebacker Brandon Chillar to nullify an interception by Bush.


Considering how often the Packers were back on their heels and tripping over themselves in pass coverage, it's a surprise the Steelers bothered to run the football. Green Bay's front wall continued to be stout more often than not, allowing an average of only 3.4 yards in 19 rushing attempts (65 yards). The Packers haven't allowed 75-plus yards on the ground in six straight games, and they upped their streak to 11 games without surrendering a 100-yard rushing day by a back. Rashard Mendenhall managed only 38 yards in 11 carries. Yet, Barnett failed to wrap him up on a 2-yard touchdown, and Hawk and Barnett had missed tackles on a 10-yard run by Mendenhall. Change-of-pace Willie Parker slipped a would-be tackle by safety Atari Bigby on the second of successive 9-yard runs. Jones held his ground to stop Santonio Holmes for a 2-yard loss on an end-around.


Mason Crosby's fourth straight game with a field-goal miss within 45 yards ultimately was the difference in the one-point loss for the Packers. Sure, the 34-yard kick that sailed Crosby-esque wide right occurred early in the second quarter, but it was a reprehensible gaffe in chip-shot range. Green Bay performed better than most weeks in other areas, including a couple flashes by Nelson on punt returns (average of 12.5 yards) and generally solid coverage, although Desmond Bishop was lax on a tackle attempt that sprung Stefan Logan for a 36-yard runback on a kickoff. Bell slipped and failed to down a perfectly placed punt by Jeremy Kapinos that hit inside the Steelers' 10 and barely bounded into the end zone.


Sending only three rushers with 3 seconds left on the clock and the Steelers' needing to throw a good-sized pass of 19 yards for a touchdown to tie the score was a decision that backfired for normally aggressive-minded defensive coordinator Dom Capers. That gave Roethlisberger the ample seconds he needed to scan down field and throw the game-winner. Capers may have relied on his recently implemented "Psycho" blitz package with just one down lineman too much, thus exposing the Packers' deficiencies in pass coverage when Roethlisberger had time and room to operate. Green Bay's offense was in passing mode more than 80 percent of the time, which gives the impression that head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy abandoned the run. McCarthy, though, jumped on the opportunity to go after the Steelers' pass coverage, and the late run call with Grant on the long touchdown proved to be a brilliant move. Something is seriously amiss with Crosby on field goals, and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum has yet to rectify matters. Costly infractions, especially on the Steelers' final drive, reared their ugly head again for the league's most penalized team.

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