Injuries not too much to overcome
ARLINGTON, Texas — For a team that had overcome injury after injury on its way to Super Bowl XLV, this was altogether different.
First Donald Driver, the leading receiver in Packers history, left with an ankle injury.
Then nickel back Sam Shields, whose development from undrafted free agent to terrific cover guy allowed defensive coordinator Dom Capers to fully unleash his zone blitz scheme, went to the locker room with a bum shoulder.
And then, in what looked like a death blow, cornerback Charles Woodson, the heart of the Packers and the league’s top defensive player a year ago, was ruled out of the game with a broken left collarbone.
It was one thing for the Packers to lose running back Ryan Grant, linebacker Nick Barnett, tight end Jermichael Finley, right tackle Mark Tauscher, or even their backups (Green Bay ended the season with 206 man-games lost to injury).
To lose Driver and Woodson (Shields later returned and then went out again), the emotional leaders of a team in search of that elusive Super Bowl ring, the Packers surely couldn’t overcome that.
But once again, they proved to be one of the most resilient teams in recent history, emerging as champions with a 31-25 victory over the Steelers last night.
“We just felt like everything we went through just shaped us for this moment right here,’’ said defensive end Ryan Pickett. “It just molded us and made us the team that you saw tonight.’’
The Packers dominated the early going, taking a page out of the Patriots’ playbook by spreading out the Steelers’ vaunted zone blitz and throwing quickly to neutralize the rush of linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and safety Troy Polamalu.
Green Bay built a 21-3 lead before the injuries took hold, and needed that cushion to hold off a gritty championship-tested team stocked with 54 Super Bowl rings.
With Woodson and Shields out, Ben Roethlisberger finally was able to find a rhythm, and led the Steelers on a seven-play, 77-yard drive to score their first touchdown just before halftime, making it 21-10.
“Good thing we had a long halftime because we had to figure out who we were going to have and then make whatever adjustments we could make,’’ said Capers.
There also was the mental state of the team, which was teetering a bit after watching Woodson go out.
“This is how it’s been going all year,’’ Pickett said. “We’ve been losing guys all year but to lose Wood, who was our leader, that was tough, that was tough on us. He’s our leader on the field. We just really wanted to bring this home for him.’’
Woodson asked coach Mike McCarthy if he could talk to the team before it went back out to the field. Woodson had trouble speaking, according to those in the room, but as his teammates also began to tear up, the former Raider managed a few words.
“Just win, baby.’’
With that, the Packers hit the field.
“It fired us up, it really did,’’ Pickett said. “We knew that we had to step up and make plays, and we were going to miss him out there so we knew the other boys would have to step up. We had confidence in them, we knew they could play.
“It was emotional, man. That guy [Woodson] puts everything he has in it. He’s the reason why we’re here. And he puts all his heart and soul into every play, every practice. He’s our leader. So it was emotional for us that he couldn’t go out and finish the game.’’
Not having Driver and Woodson left the stage for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to truly become the leader of the Packers.
He may have been the face of the franchise since Brett Favre was traded, and Rodgers has been terrific the past two seasons, but the players always looked to Woodson and then Driver as the emotional leaders.
It was on Rodgers to lead the team to the Lombardi Trophy, and he was magnificent down the stretch after watching his wideouts struggle with a combined six drops.
“With Aaron Rodgers, we put this game on his shoulders,’’ McCarthy said. “He went out there and had total command of the offense. Aaron did a great job of staying poised and staying consistent. He had an MVP performance.’’
That he did, completing 24 of 39 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns.
Of course, the Packers would have to fend off one more demon — last season’s 37-36 loss to the Steelers. It was almost the same circumstances as that game — Steelers down 6 points with the ball with about two minutes left, and nearly 90 yards to go for a touchdown.
There would be no miracle this time, as Tramon Williams knocked away a fourth-down pass.
This time the Packers overcame their injuries in the secondary. This time they were champions.
“On that last series we ended up fire-zoning three out of the last four snaps,’’ Capers said. “I just felt like we were in this situation a year ago where we were short on defensive backs and we had to defend a touchdown.
“But that situation right there was kind of indicative of our whole year. We had lost so many players, we put guys in and the guys that we put in stepped up and did the job. They did it again tonight.’’