Friday, February 4, 2011

Pressure Changes the Game

       Pressure can cause a pipe to burst.
       That statement applies to all quarterbacks. Joe Montana, John Elway and Brett Favre are widely acknowledged as masters of the game. But even they were never immune to the intense pressure of a fierce pass rush. It’s no different for those legends-in-the-making such as Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
       It’s one thing for a passer to have three, four, five seconds to find an open receiver. Yet, it’s a vastly different story when the protection breaks down.
       Pressure changes the game.
       Pressure, especially if it’s a game-long constant, has a cumulative effect. The end result is a shrinking comfort zone for the quarterback. When that zone shrinks, productivity tends to diminish. This has a lot to do with human nature. No quarterback likes to get hit.
        When the Steelers and Packers go at it for a Super Bowl title on Sunday, pressure on the quarterback – or the lack of it – could go a long way in determining the outcome. Both teams have the personnel to bring the heat in a variety of ways that could make it difficult for either offense to put a lot of points on the board. That’s not a guarantee, though. When Green Bay and Pittsburgh played in ’09, both were stellar on defense, but they ended up surrendering a combined total of 73 points.
       There’s enough evidence to validate the value of pressure and its impact. Here’s a sampling:
·        Giants-Patriots/Super Bowl XLII: Michael Strahan and crew beat up on Brady from start to finish. And it showed. New England was driving for the game-clinching touchdown. With the ball inside the Giants’ 10, Brady takes a short drop and fires a bullet to a wide-open Randy Moss on a down and out route near the goal line on the left side. Because Brady was getting tattooed so frequently, he threw quickly to avoid the rush, but the ball was badly overthrown. That’s was highly uncharacteristic for an accurate passer like Brady. The Patriots eventually scored to take the lead, but Giants answered with the winning touchdown in the closing minutes.
·        Packers-Bears/NFC championship: Aaron Rodgers carved up Chicago’s pass defense like a Christmas turkey in the first half. Green Bay had all the momentum in its favor until midway through the second half. Julius Pepper sacked Rodgers and nearly delivered a KO punch in the process. A woozy Rodgers dusted himself off, but was never the same for the rest of the day. Had it not been for the defense, it’s questionable if the Packers would even be in Dallas playing for the Lombardi Trophy.
·        Steelers/AFC playoffs: Roethlisberger managed to do just enough to offset the relentless defensive pressure in successive playoff wins against the Ravens and Jets. Big Ben delivered on the game-winning drive to help his team beat Baltimore and advance to the conference championship final. We’ll never know what would’ve happened if Ravens wide-out Anquan Boldin had not dropped a sure touchdown pass in the decisive fourth quarter. Against the Jets, Roethlisberger was held in check in the second half after Pittsburgh built  a comfortable lead. The Steelers didn’t score at all and the Jets made a game of it. The Steelers goal-line defense helped preserve the win. Still, you can’t help but wonder if things turn out differently if Justin Keller corrals a very catchable scoring pass. A touchdown at that point in the game would’ve put the Jets within striking distance of the lead with plenty time left to play in the fourth quarter. Pittsburgh put the game away for good when Big Ben converted a crucial third-down pass. The Steelers maintained possession and ran the clock out.

       Considering the caliber of Sunday’s quarterbacks and the personalities of the defenses as it relates to pressure, I give the Steelers an ever-so slight edge. It’s strictly because of Roethlisberger.
       Rodgers has proven to be superb so far, but he’s also been concussion-prone. Hopefully, the new helmet he’s been issued will save him a few headaches as it did after the big lick administered by Peppers two weeks ago. Of the two QBs, he’s definitely more likely to be KOed, and Pittsburgh is certainly capable of bringing that to pass.
       Big Ben, on the other hand, isn’t superhuman. He can be harassed and hammered, but he tends to keep on standing. I don’t recall Roethlisberger ever being knocked out of a game. There’s only one example I can think of when he wasn’t able to regroup fairly quickly. A few years back, he was involved in a motorcycle accident. The impact of the crash caused him to flip from his bike onto the windshield of an oncoming car. Aside from incurring a long slash in the back of his head, Roethlisberger suffered fractures of his nose and jaw. Remember too that when this happened, he was not wearing a protective helmet.
      That definitely won’t be case on Sunday. That doesn’t mean the Steelers are a lock to win either.


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