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Steelers and Packers win, in similar way

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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It seems like destiny that the Packers and Steelers will meet in Super Bowl XLV a week from Sunday.

Sure, they’re two of the most historic and successful franchises in NFL history.

But more than that, they’re practically blood brothers. Or second cousins.

Not just because of personal history — and there’s plenty of that — but because of what happens on the field.

Do these things sound familiar?

Athletic quarterback who is tough to sack and will keep plays alive with his feet.

Veteran receiver who is as tough as they come.

Young deep threat who can break your back with a big play.

Nose tackle who is strong, quick, and disruptive.

Outside linebacker who is ferocious and relentless as a pass rusher.

Safety who makes plays and can turn a game around in a split second.

They should ring a bell, because both the Packers and the Steelers have them.

Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. Hines Ward and Donald Driver. Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings. Casey Hampton and B.J. Raji. James Harrison and Clay Matthews. Troy Polamalu and Nick Collins.

The Packers are virtually a mirror image of the Steelers — right down to the fact that both teams hate free agency and develop from within.

And that didn’t happen by mistake.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy is from the lower Greenfield section on the south side of Pittsburgh — known as the “Run.’’ His father, Joe, was a policeman, then a firefighter, and owned a bar that bore his name. The family sold the bar more than two decades ago, but the stories of young Mike and his brothers working cleanup are alive and well. Joe and Ellen McCarthy still live in the house where they raised their five children.

As a low-paid assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh from 1989-91, McCarthy worked the midnight shift in a turnpike toll booth.

Pittsburgh is who McCarthy is. Even helped him land the Packers coaching job in 2006.

“I liked his Pittsburgh macho,’’ general manager Ted Thompson has said.

When the Packers went 6-10 in 2008 a year after reaching the NFC Championship game, McCarthy decided to fire defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and his basic 4-3 defense predicated on press coverage from the cornerbacks.

He went looking for a coordinator who could put together the 3-4 pressure scheme he always wanted. He found Dom Capers, who as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator from 1992-94 helped cook up the famed zone blitz with a defensive backs coach by the name of Dick LeBeau (who coached defensive backs for the Packers in the 1970s).

“That’s the way it always was in Pittsburgh,’’ McCarthy said last season before facing the Steelers on Dec. 20. “You play great defense, and that was always the bottom line to winning championships.

“I know my history as an offensive coach, but clearly when I became a head coach, I did not want to be known as a former quarterback coach that was a head coach. It definitely starts with defense. That’s always been my vision, and we feel like we’ve made strides towards that this year definitely. I think that’s just part of growing up in western Pennsylvania.’’

Many of McCarthy’s assistant coaches have ties to Pittsburgh as well.

Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene had 35 1/2 sacks with the Steelers from 1993-95. Safeties coach Darren Perry played seven years for the black and gold, and coached another four under Bill Cowher. Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements was one of the best two-sport athletes (football and basketball) to ever come out of the Pittsburgh area. McCarthy even idolized him before Clements went to Notre Dame and led the Irish to the national championship in 1973. Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, tight ends coach Bob McAdoo, and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum all spent time in the area.

“This is going to be a very unique experience for everybody,’’ McCarthy said yesterday. “Half my coaching staff has either played in Pittsburgh or is from Pittsburgh. So there will be a lot of story lines from that perspective. I think the fact that I’m from back there, it’s neat. I’m a Pittsburgh Steeler fan growing up. They’re my second-favorite team.’’

And one of the few teams McCarthy has yet to get the best of.

They only faced off once, in that Dec. 20, 2009 game at Heinz Field, and it was an all-timer. In fact, it was the first time in NFL history that a game ended with a 37-36 score, and it happened when Roethlisberger connected with an outstretched Wallace in the end zone on a 19-yard touchdown as time expired.

It was not a game for defensive purists. The teams combined for 973 yards of total offense, and the two quarterbacks combined to complete 55 of 94 passes for 886 yards and six touchdowns.

The Packers couldn’t stop tight end Heath Miller, who torched linebacker A.J. Hawk for seven catches and 118 yards. Or Hampton, who blew up the run game so much McCarthy called just 12 runs. But Harrison found no traction against veteran left tackle Chad Clifton.

Jennings caught five passes for 118 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown. End Cullen Jenkins and linebacker Matthews had Roethlisberger running all game long.

Steelers safety Polamalu did not play in that game because of injury. The Packers have replaced nickel back Jarrett Bush and dime back Jacob Bell — who were both beaten on Wallace touchdowns, with Sam Shields, who had two interceptions in the NFC title game win over the Bears, and Pat Lee.

Much has changed since that meeting on a raw December day.

But the backbones of the teams remain the same. And are the same.

For the Packers and the Steelers, it’s the ties that bind.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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