ARLINGTON, Texas – There is a little secret among the NFL's elite when it comes to playing the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Don't be afraid to throw.
If you have the talent at wide receiver and quarterback, that's the way to attack the vaunted Steelers defense. If you're good enough, not only can you attack that way, you can make the blitz-happy scheme, run by Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau, look downright average.
"If you're willing to sell out on the passing game and just open it up, you can get to them," one NFC offensive coordinator said. "The key is that you have to react faster than they do. If your receivers and quarterback are too slow with the ball, you're going to get killed. If not, you can move it against them."
In eight games over the past five years against quarterbacks who have led their teams to the Super Bowl at some point in that span (including the title game against Kurt Warner(notes) and the Arizona Cardinals), Pittsburgh has allowed opponents to rack up big yards and stats. Among the numbers generated by the likes of Warner, Tom Brady(notes) and Aaron Rodgers(notes) are a 105.7 average quarterback rating, an average of 28.5 points scored, 20 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Furthermore, the Steelers have lost five of those eight games.
"They're vulnerable that way," an AFC head coach said. "Now, you better be on top of what you're doing because they'll crush the mistakes. But they're not really comfortable sitting back in coverage. They want to hit you so much that they won't be patient."
The coach paused for a second.
"And, if you can avoid [cornerback Ike] Taylor and [safety Troy] Polamalu, their secondary isn't very good."
While it's easy to understand how any defense would struggle against the likes of Brady, Drew Brees(notes), Peyton Manning(notes), Rodgers and Eli Manning(notes), the other key in this equation is the receiving corps. All of them were diverse and, with the exception of the New York Giants, able to play four- and five-receiver offenses with regularity. That includes Sunday's opponent in the Super Bowl, Green Bay, which regularly uses the combination of Donald Driver(notes), Greg Jennings(notes), Jordy Nelson(notes) and James Jones(notes).
In three playoffs games this postseason, that combination has 47 catches for 620 yards and three touchdowns. It's a group that understands the intrinsic need to help each other.
"Coming in here and learning the offense isn't the hard part," said Jones, who has the fewest catches in the group with six, but also leads the quartet in touchdowns with two. "The important thing is getting how it all works together. What one guy does helps the other guy and if you do what you're supposed to do, you can get that guy open or he can get you open.
"If I'm lined up at plus-3 [three yards outside the numbers], that affects the leverage of the inside receiver and vice versa. … It's way different than college. In college, you just lined up and ran your route and you didn't think about the other receivers."
Said Nelson: "There's learning the plays and then there's learning the philosophy of the offense. It's two different things."
One of the keys to attacking the Steelers is having at least three receivers to one side of the formation and then moving a receiver before the snap. That usually forces Pittsburgh into more conventional coverages.
From there, the patterns have to be precise and the quarterback's decisions have to be quick. Receivers can't afford to be sloppy because it can lead to a sack or some other mistake.
Tom Brady lit up the Steelers in Week 10, one of two wins he's had over the Steelers since 2006.
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Over the past five seasons, the Steelers have played eight games against quarterbacks who have led their team to a Super Bowl during that same stretch. Here are the results of those games. Excluded is Kurt Warner's game against the Steelers in 2007, when he entered the contest as a backup:
"Against a lot of teams, if a guy isn't going to be getting the ball, he'll just chill and not really run his route, which means you can just chill, too," Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden(notes) said. "The Packers don't play it that way. They're always running out their routes."
Of course, the final part of the equation is the offensive triggerman. The list of quarterbacks who have lit up the Steelers in recent years is short and accomplished. These aren't schlubs.
In Week 10 of this season, Pittsburgh was picked apart by Brady and New England. Using a variety of four- and five-receiver formations, Brady completed 30 of 43 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns. Just as important, the Steelers had zero interceptions and zero sacks.
Brady has a long history of picking apart the Steelers, but he is not alone in recent years. Brees, Rodgers and Warner all have put up 300-yard games against Pittsburgh. Moreover, they have all thrown with abandon, each of them attempting at least 40 passes vs. Pittsburgh. In fact, over the eight games the aforementioned six quarterbacks have played against the Steelers, they have averaged 43 pass attempts. Only once has someone thrown fewer than 40 times (Eli Manning with 32 throws in 2008).
If you have the receivers and a quarterback who can react, the fear starts to fade. But don't get greedy. In contrast to what those quarterbacks have done, San Diego and quarterback Philip Rivers(notes) have struggled against the Steelers during that run, losing three of four games against Pittsburgh, averaging 20.7 points in the three defeats.
"The Chargers are different because they don't play the same type of offense," the AFC coach said. "They don't spread out as much and they're trying to get vertical too much. Against the Steelers, you have to take the shorter routes and set up the deeper stuff … You're treating the passing game as if it's the running game."
In 2009 against Rodgers, the Steelers allowed Green Bay to complete 26 of 48 passes for 383 yards and three touchdowns, getting zero interceptions and one sack. The Steelers won that game 37-36 when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) threw for 503 yards.
Rodgers has tried to downplay that game leading up to the Super Bowl. But it's easy to tell that Rodgers believes there are opportunities.
"We have to be sharp," Rodgers said. "But if we are, we're confident."
There's ample reason for that confidence.