DETROIT – It's accepted that the Pittsburgh Steelers play physical football. In the Bill Cowher era, they've emphasized running the ball and stopping the run.
But the Seattle Seahawks actually have the statistical edge at the line of scrimmage. The difference in per-carry averages on both sides of the line is 0.5 yards per carry in favor of the Seahawks.
Over the last five games, that number jumped to +1.5 in favor of the Seahawks, although the Steelers played a better caliber of competition.
Against their five common opponents this season, the Seahawks' advantage at the line of scrimmage rocketed to +2.5 yards per carry.
Half of the reason for the significant advantage is the Seahawks' stellar running game, but the other half is an underrated run defense that's allowed 3.6 yards per carry to rank fifth in the NFL. The Steelers led the NFL this season in defensive yards per carry (3.4), so it's little wonder Seahawks fullback Mack Strong expects tonight's Super Bowl to "be one of the most physical football games that has ever been played."
Against the last three defenses that sold out to stop the run, the Steelers passed the ball early in the game and early in the series. How well the Steelers pass on the Seahawks will determine tonight's outcome, and how well the Steelers pass block will determine whether they can pass against the Seahawks' eight-man rush. The Seahawks led the league this season with 50 sacks.
"Not one guy has most of their sacks. They all have a couple," said Steelers guard Alan Faneca. "That just shows that they play great with each other and have a good feel for where they are on the field and the scheme that they're in."
Defensive end Bryce Fisher led the Seahawks with nine sacks; one-half more than tackle Rocky Bernard. Six Seahawks recorded four or more sacks. By comparison, only two Steelers have four or more sacks.
The Steelers' offensive line has ably protected quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the playoffs. They allowed 32 sacks this season, or one every 12.8 passes (24th in NFL). In three road playoff games, the Steelers allowed five sacks, or one every 15.8 passes.
"Right before the Bears game, with four games left, I think they really turned the corner," said running back Jerome Bettis. "We had two guys on the right side who were just kind of making their way, and I think everything started to click right about then. From then on, I think that group has been playing the best of anybody on our team."
If they block the Seahawks, the Steelers will throw into a secondary that ranked 22nd in defensive yards per completion, 13th in defensive passer rating and 12th in completion percentage. It's an average secondary at best that held NFL receiving and yardage leader Steve Smith to five catches for 33 yards in the NFC title game. They did it with double and even triple coverage.
"I don't think they're going to double me because some of our other guys have stepped up in the postseason," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward. "But to be honest, I really don't know how they're going to play us. That's why it's the Super Bowl. We haven't played each other and we're going to have to adjust on the run."
The Seahawks have given up plenty of yardage to tight ends this season. Jeremy Shockey caught six passes for 127 yards against them; Ben Troupe caught six for 116. Other thick yardage numbers were put up by Eric Edwards (63), Chris Cooley (52), Jason Whitten (47) and L.J. Smith (46). The Seahawks allowed a league-leading nine catches of 25 yards or more to tight ends.
How's that rookie wall, Heath Miller?
"There was a point in the season when it was rough," Miller said, "but the playoffs really built my energy level back up and I haven't looked back. We had a few days off and my body feels great right now."
MVP LONGER SHOT
Former Cincinnati Bengals first-round pick Peter Warrick was signed by the Seahawks on Sept. 1. He served as the team's fourth wide receiver and made 11 catches. He also returned six punts for a 4.8 return average.
In the NFC Championship game, Warrick returned two punts for seven yards and has been installed as the team's primary return man for tonight's game.
"Who really kept me going was (Matt) Hasselbeck," Warrick said. "He said, ‘Pete, we're going to go to the Super Bowl and you're going to be the star and return a punt for a touchdown.' At that point in the season I was like, whatever, whatever. But now he'll be the first one to tell you that I've gone back to him and said thank you."
The Seahawks finished 30th in the NFL in punt-return average. The Steelers were third.
In punt coverage, the Seahawks finished 18th, and then allowed a 58-yard return for a touchdown by Smith in the NFL Championship game.
The referee tonight will be 11-year veteran Bill Leavy. It's his first Super Bowl assignment as a referee, but he worked Super Bowl XXXIV as a back judge. … The pre-game entertainment for Super Bowl XL will be provided by Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Joss Stone and India.Arie. The National Anthem will be sung by Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Aretha Franklin and a Detroit-based 150-member choir. The coin toss will be performed by Tom Brady. The Rolling Stones will perform at halftime.