Collier: Clock control is the key in Super Bowl

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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Maybe it's because this particular swath of North Texas got converted to America's largest skating rink for most of the week, and maybe it's because of the incessant, minimally clever hockey references the ice has elicited from the grumbling media, but I've got Penguins on the brain, which is no known side effect to any of my medications.

The brain works in unusual ways under the influence of the Penguins, and it was in such a state that the one way the Steelers can win Super Bowl 45 somehow became clear to me.

It's also perhaps the only way.

The Penguins, you might be aware, try to adhere to a strategic philosophy by which they play defense with their offense, forechecking relentlessly so as to tire the opposition in its own end, leaving it less than effective when it does control the puck.

The football transposition then goes like this: Since the most productive player on either team is Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the way you win Sunday night is to minimize Mr. Rodgers' participation, which is primarily the job, it says here, of Bruce Arians' offense.

The best possible start for the Steelers would be a duplication of the opening drive against the New York Jets two weeks ago, which lasted nine minutes and six seconds, in which 16 plays stretched into a 7-0 lead that would more than triple itself before halftime, and most important, during which Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards watched exactly 15 percent of the AFC championship game before they got off the sideline. They eventually would watch 58 percent of it, as the Steelers kept the ball for 34:41 of the game's 60 minutes.

"It takes an elite player to respond the way Rashard Mendenhall has to what we've asked him to do," Arians said the other day, warming to this topic in his typical circuitous but cerebral way. "I've been around some great backs, Marshall Faulk, Edgerrin James, but I don't know if I've seen one have as great a game running the ball after contact as Rashard did against the Jets. He had 58 or 59 [of his 121] yards after contact."

Arians was not suggesting in this context that the Steelers have to run to beat Green Bay because he just wouldn't do that. But he did allow that less Rodgers is in the game, the better.

"People think that means you have to run it, but the biggest thing is really third-down conversions," he said. "Since Ben's come back, we've really done well on third down. He's the best in the league on third down."

The Steelers have converted 52 percent of their third-down situations (13 for 25) in the playoffs, but it's the byproduct of those conversations that is so critical to their success, and that's time of possession. Arians' offense has maintained a possession advantage in nine consecutive games and in 14 of its 18 this season. When the Steelers have the ball for 30 minutes or more, they are 13-1. When they have it for less than that, they are 1-3.

That looks pretty persuasive, but as coaches love to tell you, nothing is that simple.

"We talk about production time, not possession time," he said. "Last year we finished in the top three in possession time, but only averaged 21 points. That's not enough. We'd like to get a point a minute."

You'd like to, but even the best offenses rarely do. The Steelers are 14-4, but the offense only managed a point a minute or better three times. In 600 minutes of possession time, the offense scored 347 points, which isn't actually a serious deficit. I mean, this is the Super Bowl, isn't it?

But just as important, the conjunctive function of possession time can be described as the Polamalu Imperative. Maybe you've noticed that whenever the issue of whether the Steelers should be primarily a running team or a passing team boils to the surface, the All-Pro safety takes the opportunity to note that the larger urgency is limiting the defense's work load. This defense, Troy says pretty reliably, can't be played for much more than 30 minutes of game clock.

"We play a lot of fire zone, which is really man defense," said Larry Foote, an associate professor of Dick LeBeau defense. "When you're rushing everybody, giving everybody a chance to blitz, that's a high energy situation. Plus coach LeBeau always says, 'don't leave your buddy on an island.' When the ball is thrown, everybody runs to it. Some teams will just sit back in that cover-2, and you can take some plays off. Not here."

This is the part of Super Bowl week when the people who have done nothing but talk football for five consecutive days start to hallucinate, and a common mind-bending symptom is the suspicion that you know what's going to happen Sunday. You don't, but you think you do, and what I think is going to happen is that the team that gets 30 minutes of possession time will win.

That's why I asked Arians specifically if the Steelers could win if they have the ball for only 27 or 28 minutes.

"Yeah, if we score 27 or 28 points," he said. "Those kinds of games usually come down to your two-minute offense because when you don't have [the ball], you'd better be getting something done when you do."

Right.

And don't forget to keep the puck in their end as much as possible.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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