Packers are very familiar with Steelers
The Steelers' fingerprints can be found all over the Green Bay Packers' playbook and game plans. Aaron Rodgers hears the Pittsburghese in Mike McCarthy's voice whenever he gets angry, and the Packers' postgame snack this weekend in their coach's hometown will be his favorite pizza.
The Packers' coaching staff is loaded with Steelers alumni in defensive coordinator Dom Capers and assistants Kevin Greene, Darren Perry and Tom Clements. The Packers switched defenses from the 4-3 to the 3-4 because, well, it was the Pittsburgh way to go.
"Their defense is one of the top defenses in the last two decades in the National Football League," McCarthy said. "They're always going to be in the game because of that defense. We have a lot of respect for their outside rushers and scheme and, frankly, it has a lot to do with why we're now in a 3-4 defense."
It's not that the Packers are trying to copy the Steelers, even if a team that's won six Super Bowls and two in the last four seasons would be an ideal franchise to model. Rather, Green Bay is so infused with Steelers' DNA, it's only natural that the Packers are so Steelers-like in how they prepare, how they go about their business, how they play defense.
Maybe that's why the Packers (9-4), winners of five in a row and possibly only a victory away from the playoffs, view their game against the slumping Steelers (6-7) with a wary eye and a measure of trepidation.
After losing five in a row, the Steelers need a mini-miracle to reach the playoffs a season after winning the Super Bowl. They've shown a baffling inability to beat bad teams — losing to the Chiefs (3-11), Raiders (4-9) and Browns (2-11) in a month's time — but defeating a good one like Green Bay might allow them to reclaim their self-respect.
Right now, the Steelers seem baffled about why they've gone from good to bad so quickly, with Ben Roethlisberger saying, "We're stunned." They looked like it while losing 13-6 in Cleveland, playing with little intensity or passion.
The Packers don't anticipate that being a problem this weekend.
"I'm sure there's a sense of urgency on that side," Rodgers said. "But I think we understand what we're playing for as well. We're in the thick of this wild card, and we need to take a great step forward in this journey, if we can get a win."
Get a win. That's the Steelers' theme for the week, too, after a last-minute loss at home to Oakland on Dec. 6 segued into that embarrassing loss at Cleveland four days later. Just get a win. Don't talk about salvaging the season or winning three of row or being respectable; get one win, and then the healing can start.
"The emphasis for me and my guys is not to 'Hang in there,' " coach Mike Tomlin said. "Adversity is as much a part of this game as blocking and tackling. It's important that we keep that in perspective, and the perspective is we haven't played much winning football."
There's much to be won in Pittsburgh, at least for the Packers.
The postseason begins to come into focus for them if the Packers can extend their winning streak to six and the Steelers' losing streak to six. Also, winning in one of the NFL's most hostile environments in December would be excellent preparation for trying to do so in another tough venue in January.
To win, the Packers can't let Rodgers get tossed around by Pittsburgh's pass rush; he has been sacked a league-high 48 times, though only six times in the last four games. To give Rodgers time to throw, the Packers need Ryan Grant, coming off a 137-yard game against Chicago, to find some seams against the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense.
The Packers' own defensive rankings are Steelers-like so late in a season: No. 2 overall, No. 2 against the run, No. 3 against the pass. The Browns didn't allow Pittsburgh to score a touchdown, and Green Bay would similarly like to frustrate the Steelers offensively and not let the crowd get into the game.
Given that safety Ryan Clark was disparaging of some fans, saying they're too critical of a team that won a Super Bowl only 10 months ago, the Steelers' play early on might dictate what response they get in their own stadium.
"I know there's a certain level of anger and frustration and disappointment with where we are," Tomlin said. "The big thing is that we use that as fuel and we mold that into a winning-caliber performance."
Winning in Pittsburgh would be extra special for McCarthy, and not only because the Packers are one of the league's turnaround stories this season. This is one of those check-'em-off games every coach has in his career; the teams play in Pittsburgh only occasionally, so who knows if McCarthy will get a chance to win there again as a head coach?
If the Packers do, that post-game pizza from Aiello's is bound to taste extra good.
"This one means a lot, for sure," Rodgers said.