Packers – Steelers Roots Run Deep: Connecting the Dots to Super Bowl XLV
As a resident of Pittsburgh and a native of Wisconsin, I have been indoctrinated as both a fan of the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. My father’s side of the family prays nightly to St. Lombardi, while my mother’s side of the family wear their black and gold with the utmost pride.
Luckily for me, these two teams play in different conferences and rarely meet, so I can almost always root for both teams without much contradiction. They have only played each other 27 times dating back to 1940, and Super Bowl XLV will be the first time they ever meet for the NFL Championship. (My personal dream come true.)
In my relatively unique situation, I have come to realize how similar these two franchises have become. In fact, the Packers have much to owe Pittsburgh for their recent success, especially on the defensive side of the ball. And no matter how much you’ve read this past week, there is a lot more to this story than just Mike McCarthy being a “yinzer.”
FROM “TITLETOWN” TO “SIXBURGH”
When you look at the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, it’s hard not to think about their reputations as championship teams. After all, both teams have set some historic precedents with their past dynasties.
The Green Bay Packers of the 1960’s won five NFL championships over a seven year period under legendary head coach Vince Lombardi. These five titles concluded with the victories in Super Bowls I and II. From this success was eventually born the nickname “Titletown, USA,” which the city of Green Bay boasts on its official seal. Additionally, the Super Bowl trophy awarded to winning teams was renamed to commemorate Vince Lombardi after his sudden death in 1970.
Meanwhile, the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers – under head coach Chuck Noll – became the first team to win more than two Super Bowls, as well as the only team to win four Super Bowls in six years. Along with the championship successes of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pitt Panthers, the Steelers helped define Pittsburgh as the “City of Champions” during that decade.
Now, after winning Super Bowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers lay claim to the most Vince Lombardi Trophies, with six. This, of course, prompted the nickname “Sixburgh” to boast their NFL record. The Packers, meanwhile, continue to hold the record for the most national football championships of any team, with nine NFL Championships and three Super Bowls wins.
Both teams will be looking to defend their reputations in this year’s historic match-up. The Packers and Steelers have a combined 11 appearances and 9 Lombardi Trophies in Super Bowls prior to this year, but only one of them can walk away victorious this time.
Since Mike McCarthy became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 2006, he has professed his desire to make the team tougher and more physical. That type of philosophy is not rare in the NFL by any stretch; however, it seems very fitting for a man who calls Pittsburgh his home.
In 1963, Mike McCarthy was born in Greenfield, PA, as one of five children to a man who made his career as a firefighter and police office. Needless to say, McCarthy learned discipline and pragmatism at an early age. His father, Joe, also owned a bar near a Pittsburgh steel mill, where McCarthy worked odd jobs as a teen.
According to his biography on Packers.com, “it was interacting with the hard-working tavern clientele while also watching a father in uniform dedicated to public service that helped make McCarthy proud of where he came from.”
After serving as the graduate assistant coach at Fort Hays State (1987-1988), Mike McCarthy was hired to work under Paul Hackett at the University of Pittsburgh, where he served as quarterbacks coach (1989-1991) before coaching wide receivers during the 1992 season. His NFL career began when he followed Panthers’ head coach Paul Hackett to the Kansas City Chiefs as a quality control assistant.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, that McCarthy prompted a switch to the 3-4 defense and hired Dom Capers as defensive coordinator. He grew up during the era of the “Steel Curtain” and was leaving his tenure at Pitt when the “Blitzburgh” defense was just beginning to roll. Who could have picked a better team to show him the importance of a hard-nosed, dominating defense than the Steelers?
So when Mike McCarthy takes his team to Dallas in two weeks, he will get a chance to show his hometown the football lessons he’s taken with him. For as he stated last year, and has reiterated more than once, “It starts with our defense. That’s the face of our football team.”
(For more on Mike McCarthy’s Pittsburgh roots, check out this excellent article on ESPN by Elizabeth Merrill.)
REAL MEN OF (DEFENSIVE) GENIUS
One of the top stories for this Super Bowl will undoubtedly be the reunion of defensive masterminds Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau. In 1992, these two coaches joined forces with Bill Cowher and Marvin Lewis in Pittsburgh to blaze the trail for arguably the most dominant defense in the past two decades.
Even though Bill Cowher and the Steelers’ defensive staff did not invent the basic 3-4 scheme, they made it their own. LeBeau was tasked with finalizing the product that would be given to the players, and it was his “zone blitz” stamp of success that became the icing on the cake.
Dick LeBeau, however, is no stranger to the Green Bay Packers team, despite coaching primarily the AFC’s Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals, where he first invented the zone blitz. LeBeau spent his 14-year NFL playing career as a defensive back for the Detroit Lions (1959-1972).
In that time span, he made 62 career interceptions for 762 return yards and 3 touchdowns, and holds the NFL record for consecutive game appearances for a cornerback with 171. In 2010, LeBeau was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But LeBeau had a little more to do with the Packers than just playing against them for 14 years. From 1976-1979, he served as the defensive backfield coach for Green Bay under head coach and future Pro Football Hall of Fame QB Bart Starr. In his first season, Willie Buchanon, Johnnie Gray, Steve Luke and Steve Perry combined for 10 interceptions.
Fast forward 30 years later and Dom Capers is the man behind the Green Bay Packers defense. To say that he has been successful in transitioning the unit to a 3-4 defensive scheme is an understatement. In their second season of the new system, the Packers allowed an average of 15.0 points per game (2nd), 309.1 yards per game (5th), a 67.2 opponent quarterback rating (1st), and came away with a total of 24 interceptions (2nd) and 47 sacks (T-2nd).
The Packers also have one more ace up their sleeve with outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene on the staff. After starting his heralded career with the Los Angeles Rams, Greene signed a 3-year deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1993. Known for his fiery, aggressive play, Greene earned two Pro Bowl selections while with the Steelers and played in Super Bowl XXX against the Dallas Cowboys.
In 1996, Greene followed Capers to the Carolina Panthers, where he lost the NFC Championship Game to the Packers. Now, as a coach for Green Bay, he has been instilling in his players the same fire he once had on the field.
Out of all the teams in the NFL to employ the 3-4 defense, the only other team to employ the Cowher/LeBeau/Capers system is the Arizona Cardinals, which makes the bond between the Steelers and the Packers defenses even stronger. Green Bay definitely owes “Blitzburgh” a lot of credit for how far they have come the past two seasons, especially considering the quick turn-around from the miserable performances of Bob Sanders’ 4-3 defense.
THE WIZARDS BEHIND THE CURTAIN
After sticking to their ways and overcoming multiple obstacles to get their teams to the Super Bowl, Kevin Colbert of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ted Thompson of the Green Bay Packers could perhaps be considered two of the best General Managers / Directors of Football Operations in the business.
These “Wizards of Oz” have shown what they can do behind the curtains of their respective team’s operations. But even more importantly, they have proven that championship-caliber teams can be built through the draft, as opposed to dumping loads of money into free agency acquisitions.
On March 17, 2010, Chase Stuart of the Pro-Football-Reference.com blog penned an article entitled “N.F.L. Draft: Which Teams Build Wisely?.” Using his website’s Approximate Value system, Stuart went through the 2009 season to see what percentage of each team’s approximate value came from players it drafted.
Not surprisingly, the Pittsburgh Steelers (72.6%) and Green Bay Packers (71.7%) ranked second and third on this list, respectively.
In regard to the Steelers, this approach to building a team has allowed them to achieve perennial success on a limited budget. While the Packers are beginning to show a similar path of success, they have shown how much depth can be added to the roster using the same methods. Not many teams are able to make the Super Bowl after placing 15 players on injured reserve, including 86 games missed by starters and 180 games missed by all players due to injury.
This method of building through the draft and avoiding the big-name players with hefty contracts requires not only great coaching, but great scouting. Consider for a moment that both James Harrison and Sam Shields were signed as undrafted free agents.
Then consider some of the following first-round draft picks by each team: Casey Hampton, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, and Rashard Mendenhall for the Steelers; Aaron Rodgers, A.J. Hawk, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews III, and Bryan Bulaga for the Packers.
It’s clear that Colbert and Thompson operate as some of the most efficient directors in the league when it comes to acquiring talent for their team. Getting their teams to the Super Bowl has required patience and vigilance in their ways, but no one can argue with the success they have shown.
ODDS AND ENDS
Here are a few miscellaneous facts about some of the bonds between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh:
- Towards the beginning of the 2008 season, ESPN released its “NFL Fan Base Rankings.” The top two teams on the list? You guessed it: the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers.
- Packers FB John Kuhn was signed to the Steelers’ practice squad on November 30, 2005, which earned him a Super Bowl ring after the Steelers beat the Seahawks in Super bowl XL. He was re-signed for the following season but was cut after training camp. He was eventually signed to the Steelers’ active roster on October 31, 2006, and appeared in nine games for them. The Green Bay Packers signed Kuhn the day after being released by the Steelers in 2007.
- Packers SS Anthony Smith (currently on IR), was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third round of the 2006 NFL Draft. His third year with the Steelers was in 2008, when they went on to defeat the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. However, Smith was relegated to reserve safety and special teamer by that point. After that season, he was released and would later be picked up by the Green Bay Packers (both through free agent signing in 2009 and a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2010).
- Steelers P Jeremy Kapinos, who really needs no introduction to Packers fans, was signed by Pittsburgh after a Week 13 knee injury permanently sidelined punter Daniel Sepulveda. Kapinos was signed as a free agent by Green Bay on December 3, 2008, but was not resigned following the 2009 season for performance reasons.
- Darren Perry, current safeties coach for the Green Bay Packers, began his NFL career when the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him as an eighth round pick (203rd overall) in 1992. Perry played as a Safety for the Steelers until 1998, and was their first rookie since 1955 to lead the team in interceptions. His 32 career interceptions from those seven years are tied for seventh in Pittsburgh history. Prior to joining the coaching staff at Green Bay, Perry also served as defensive backs coach for Pittsburgh from 2004-2006.
- Tom Clements, quarterbacks coach for the Green Bay Packers since 2006, was born in McKees Rocks, PA, and attended Canevin Catholic High School (now Bishop Canevin High School). Not only that, Clements also served as quarterbacks coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers before his stint as offensive coordinator with the Buffalo Bills. Under his tutelage, Kordell Stewart (in 2001) and Tommy Maddox (in 2002) each reached the Pro Bowl.
- Scott McCurley, current defensive quality control coach for the Green Bay Packers, was born in New Castle, PA, and went to high school in Bessemer, which lies not far from the city of Pittsburgh. While McCurley never had any affiliation with the Steelers organization, he did enjoy a lengthy playing and coaching career at the University of Pittsburgh. After playing as linebacker from 1999-2002, McCurley remained with the program as a defensive graduate assistant.
After taking a look at the relationship between these two teams at this point in their storied histories, Super Bowl XLV should be that much more exciting. Their history together as franchises might be lacking, but in 2011, the current members of the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers will make this a championship game to remember.——————Follow @ChadToporski