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'09 Pittsburgh Loss Proved Educational

Defensive lineman Ryan Pickett on Wednesday said it was “embarrassing,” and the videotape of it is “hard to watch.”


He was talking, of course, about the Packers' trip to Pittsburgh on Dec. 20, 2009, when the defense surrendered a Steelers-record 503 yards passing to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the final 19 coming on a touchdown pass as time expired for an excruciating one-point loss, 37-36.

It's a given that game will be dissected through and through in the next week and a half leading up to Super Bowl XLV, but how much merit there is in analyzing the X's and O's is up for debate.

The Packers have a deeper, much-improved defense this year, as this entire season and especially the playoff run shows, while the Steelers played that game without All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, the biggest single difference-maker on Pittsburgh's defense, if not any defense in the entire AFC.

But chalkboards aside, the impact of that contest still sticks with the Packers in a few ways, one somewhat intangible, others more concrete.

For one, that loss was the start of an ignominious streak of sorts. Mike Wallace's TD catch on the game's final play produced the first of six straight defeats – spanning the last four games of 2009, including the playoffs, and the first 11 games of 2010 – that the Packers suffered in either the final seconds, or literally, the final play.

After the Pittsburgh game, there was the Wild Card playoff loss at Arizona on a defensive touchdown in overtime, ending the 2009 campaign. Then there was the Bears' field goal with 4 seconds left on Monday Night Football in Week 3 this season, plus the back-to-back overtime losses to Washington and Miami in Week 6, both decided by sudden-death field goals, and finally the Falcons' field goal with 9 seconds left at the Georgia Dome in Week 12.

For 11 months, beginning that dramatic evening at Heinz Field, the Packers didn't lose unless it was at the gun.

"It was a tough loss for us, and really it was kind of like all the games we lost this year," guard Josh Sitton said. "Last-second losses. Losing by a point or three points. You know, it's one of the games you've got to finish.

"It's all about the finish. And I think down the stretch this year we've learned how to finish those games and we've had a few of those close games including the playoff games, so I think we've learned how to finish better."

Indeed, after two more close losses at Detroit and New England this season, the Packers turned that trend around. They protected one-score leads with interceptions in the final minute to beat the Bears in Week 17, the Eagles in the Wild Card playoff, and the Bears again in the NFC Championship.

The players will say a lot over the next week and a half that this isn't the same defense facing Pittsburgh, and they have the statistics (No. 2 in points allowed) and crunch-time performances by a much deeper secondary to prove it.

"I think we pretty much had them beat except for the last play," linebacker Desmond Bishop said. "So I think that gives us a little bit of confidence. There's no moral victories or whatever, but I think we can take back from the game that we can play with them."

The Packers also got a glimpse of the playmaker Wallace was becoming, as he hauled in a 60-yard TD pass on Pittsburgh's first play and then won the game on the last. This year, the speedy Wallace led the AFC with an impressive 21.0-yard average per catch and led his team with 1,257 yards and 10 touchdown receptions, with the yardage total ranking fifth in the league.

Even more important, the defense also got a first-hand lesson in just how much harder it is to defend Roethlisberger than most quarterbacks. It wasn't just the passing yards he racked up, but how he did it.

The Packers sacked Roethlisberger five times in that game, including twice by linebacker Clay Matthews, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers estimated after reviewing the film that they had him dead to rights five additional times and came up empty. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 241 pounds, Roethlisberger has the strength and balance, as well as an uncanny knack, for shaking would-be tacklers and either making plays with guys draped on him, or escaping to extend the play and fire downfield on the run.

Pickett said Roethlisberger "breaks more tackles than any running back I've seen," while Capers likened him to either an offensive lineman or a fullback back there, but with a Howitzer of an arm capable of the big strike at any moment.

"When you get your shot, you know, you can't just go full speed and reckless," said cornerback Charles Woodson, used as a blitzer by Capers even more this year than last. "You've got to kind of break down and be ready to move either way with the quarterback. Because it doesn't take much for a quarterback to just step one foot forward or step one foot back, and you'll miss him completely.

"So you've got to come with some sort of controlled aggression, once you get to the quarterback. And when you get your hands on him, you can't let go. He's gotta go down. So that will be the task, not only for me but for our defensive linemen and linebackers as well."

Having experienced those struggles against Roethlisberger, and having seen how badly he can make a defense pay for a missed tackle, should help the Packers as they prepare to face him again, and that preparation already is underway.

Bishop said that Capers on Wednesday showed the defense a series of film cut-ups of players whiffing on potential sacks of Roethlisberger, pointing out their technical flaws. He also showed successful sacks of him, emphasizing exactly how defenders didn't go high or low, but hit him between the knees and chest to take advantage of their opportunity to end the play.

That won't be the only secret to beating the Steelers this time, but it will be one of them, without a doubt.

"A lot of guys are going for his pump fakes or not wrapping up fully when they have him," Bishop said. "So I think it's just a mental or a subliminal note that when you get your opportunity to get him, you gotta hit, you gotta wrap up and bring all your technique, and all your weight with you, because he's definitely a big guy to bring down."

Additional coverage - Jan. 26

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