Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers alum and California Golden Bears great, has played very well in most of his playoff starts, but it is the Super Bowl, he is coming off a rough performance, and anything can happen. Playing the Pittsburgh Steelers defense (the second best pass defense and the best total defense in the NFL) will be the biggest test of his professional career. Let's take a look at some of the keys.
Accuracy. Everything starts with accuracy for Rodgers. If he completes 65% of his passes or more, the Packers are 20-5 with him as the starter (plus 2-1) in the playoffs. When he dips below that, his numbers plummet to 8-18. The first two drives will be critical for Rodgers--if he gets into a rhythm and engineers long drives, he could very well make it a long day for the Steelers. But if they stop him at least once of twice, they will be in trouble. (Counterpoint: Rodgers completed only 57% of his passes against Chicago and the defense held up.)
In his last matchup with Pittsburgh? Rodgers threw for 383 yards and three touchdowns, but needed 48 passes to get there. Only a 54.2 completion percentage. The Steelers would love to hold Rodgers to similar numbers on Sunday. That would be a victory in their eyes.
Taking care of the ball. As we've talked about before, Aaron's interception percentage is the lowest in both Cal football and NFL history. Yet he nearly cost the Packers the game when he threw an interception to Brian Urlacher of the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game; if it wasn't for his tackle, it would've been a one possession game.
Rodgers was turnover-free the last time he faced the Steelers. He'll need to replicate that performance. In a game featuring the two best defenses in the NFL, ball control, time of possession, and field position will be more important than deep bombs and risky coverage throws. Rely on your punter Tim Masthay to pin the Steelers, and focus on eating up possessions. Just look at the history of Super Bowl quarterbacks (Joe Montana, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, even Roethlisberger himself) and you'll see a bunch of guys who performed competently, but hardly exceptionally in their Super Bowl debuts. Steve Young and Phil Simms aside, the history of Super Bowls is littered with fine but not stellar performances at the quarterback position.
In other words, Aaron, don't Favre this one up.
Recognition of blitzes. Rodgers is pretty good against the blitz thanks to his mobility, but the key will be what type of blitzes the Steelers throw at him. Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is the master of the zone blitz, and he used it to try and stifle Rodgers's production in their last meeting, particularly by shooting inside linebackers into the middle gaps. Don't expect Rodgers to see the same type of blitz though; he's executing the throws he didn't execute last time against that type of scheme. How well Rodgers is able to make a play against the creative schemes of LeBeau will go a long way to deciding how close he'll get to victory tonight.
Ultimately, this game has the feel of a defensive slugfest, so Rodgers will just have to do his best, hang in there, and not make mistakes. Pittsburgh has the best front seven in the NFL and they will almost certainly shut down James Starks, Brandon Jackson and the Packers run game. So they will try their best to bring their linebackers back to play both run and pass (heavily favoring the pass), and they are extremely adept at defending against the shotgun. There will be only a few chances for Rodgers offensively, and he'll have to take advantage of most of them to win the most difficult game of his professional career.