This is Part 7 of our 9-part Super Bowl XLV Preview series. In this installment, we’re going to take a look at the linebackers on both teams.
If you haven’t read the other parts of this series, click the appropriate link below:
In 2009 the Green Bay Packers defense was ranked #1 in the NFL against the run. But in 2010, they dropped all the way down to #18 (while the Steelers defense moved to #1 against the run). A big part of the decline that the Packers experienced was due to injuries to their linebackers.
The Packers’ linebackers were decimated by injuries just as badly as the Steelers’ offensive line got decimated. Three of the linebackers who started for the Packers on opening day ended up on injured reserve. Nick Barnett, Brad Jones, and Brandon Chillar all ended up on the IR list. Back-up linebacker Brady Poppinga also ended up on injured reserve.
The injuries forced the Packers to rely on guys that they didn’t expect to play an important role when they entered training camp. Desmond Bishop had only started 1 game in the past 3 seasons. Erik Walden wasn’t even on an NFL roster when the Packers signed him in October. Frank Zombo, an undrafted free agent, also gave to Packers some quality minutes.
Bishop and Walden make up the right side of the Packers linebacking corps. They are not as high profile as Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk, the two linebackers on the left side of the Packers’ defense, but they played an important role in getting the Packers to the Super Bowl. Bishop finished second on the team in tackles.
Clay Matthews is obviously the star of this unit. He’s an All-Pro player, and many thought that he might be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year (Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu ultimately won the award).
Matthews is an inspirational story. He entered his senior year at USC as a special teams player. He hadn’t started his first 3 years, and wasn’t expected to start his final year. But he won a starting position by sheer determination, and then one year later he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL.
Matthews is virtually unstoppable, but unlike the Dallas Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware, Matthews doesn’t have super human speed, and unlike the Steelers’ James Harrison, he doesn’t have super strength. What Matthews DOES have is a motor that never stops. Never. He’s the type of player who plays until the echo of the whistle.
The final member of the Packers’ starting linebackers is A.J. Hawk. He entered the NFL as the top rated linebacker coming out of college his senior year. He’s a solid linebacker, but he’s been a disappointment relative to the expectation of what he would accomplish in the NFL. He seldom makes game-changing plays, and prior to Brandon Chillar being injured, the Packers used to pull A.J. Hawk in favor of Chillar in their nickel defense.
The Steelers’ linebackers are a much more talented unit than the Packers’. In my estimation, only Clay Matthews could start for the Steelers. The rest of the Packers linebackers (even those on IR) would be back-ups for the Steelers.
Outside linebackers LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are widely recognized as the deadliest outside linebacking duo in the NFL. Both of them have had double digit sacks for each of the past 3 years. Their effectiveness is a big part of the reason the Steelers led the NFL in sacks in 2010.
Inside linebacker James Farrior is the captain of the Steelers’ defense. He makes the defensive calls. The 14 year veteran is an extremely intelligent player who continues to defy Father Time.
The least heralded of the Steelers’ linebackers is Lawrence Timmons. Timmons was Mike Tomlin’s first draft pick when he took over as head coach of the Steelers. Timmons is the fastest of all of the Steelers’ linebackers. And though he doesn’t get the attention that his fellow linebackers get (Timmons is the only starting linebacker who hasn’t been to the Pro Bowl), Timmons actually led the Steelers in tackles in 2010. It won’t be long before he’s also a Pro Bowl linebacker.
Besides their starters, the Steelers have excellent back-up linebackers. Keyaron Fox can step in for James Farrior or Lawrence Timmons, and the team doesn’t seem to miss a beat. Larry Foote rejoined the Steelers this season after leaving them when Lawrence Timmons took his starting position. He is a veteran of this system, and he provides quality depth. Rookie linebackers Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester have played very well whenever they’ve been called on to play.
Clay Matthews may be playing the best football right now of all of the linebackers who will be playing in Super Bowl XLV. But when taken as a unit, the advantage in this game definitely falls to the Steelers.
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