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Could Special Teams Decide Super Bowl XLV?

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This is unheard of...five authors for APC, and all of us are posting something within a 12-hour span of time. I love it.

But back to reality. I haven't had a chance to analyze many of the matchups that will play out on Sunday in Arlington, or at least the ones I have analyzed have already been discussed ad nauseum in the media or have been covered by Brandon or my fellow authors. But there's one phase of the game that's crawled into my mind and stayed there, like Khan's brain control slug in Star Trek II (see, Ryan? I can make Star Trek references too!)...special teams.

Nobody seems to be talking about either the Packers' or Steelers' special teams units in the days and weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. Frankly, there's a good reason for this. Neither team has a particularly explosive returner. Since Pittsburgh cut Jeff Reed, neither team has a particularly wacky kicker. And when the blogosphere's whipping boy of 2009, Jarrett Bush, is arguably the best kick coverage player on the field, that unit won't get much press either.

But I feel I must dissect the third phase, because I just can't get it out of my head.

Kicker: Mason Crosby vs. Shaun Suisham

Crosby has been a reasonably solid kicker over his four years in Green Bay. He has a strong leg and generally makes the kicks he should and a number of difficult ones. Suisham has spent time with Dallas and Washington (and a few other teams in training camps and tryouts), and was cut after missing a 23-yard kick last season that would have given the Redskins an upset win over the Saints. Suisham was signed when Reed was cut in November, and went 14 for 15 this season. Still, the known quantity will get my edge over the journeyman, despite Suisham's slightly better career FG percentage.

Advantage: Green Bay

Punter: Tim Masthay vs. Jeremy Kapinos

Remember Kapinos? I bet you wish you couldn't. He was the Packers' punter in 2009 and finished with a somewhat respectable 43.8 yard average. The problem was that his net was only 34.1. Compare this to Masthay's 43.9 yard average this year. Looks like the Packers haven't improved much, right? Wrong. Masthay's net is 37.6. In 09, Kapinos sent 15 punts inside the 20, had ten touchbacks (a stat where less is more in the punting game), and only had seven punts fair-caught. Masthay's numbers are 20, 5, and 18. Add in the ginger's confidence level after shutting down Devin Hester (twice) and DeSean Jackson recently, and there's no question who gets the check mark.

Advantage: Green Bay

Coverage

Here's where it gets tough. Coverage guys are generally young, unknown, and have little statistical measure of success. It's nice that we can finally appreciate Jarrett Bush now that he's not on the field during defensive plays, but one player doesn't make a coverage unit good. Since there's not a good metric to really judge these units, I'll base this on return yardage allowed. The Packers allow 11 yards per return on punts, and about 22 on kickoffs. The Steelers give up 9.2 and 20. Not a huge difference there, but there's a difference.

Advantage: Pittsburgh

Returns: Tramon Williams/ James Starks vs. Antonio Brown

Williams has been a reasonably effective, if not flashy, punt returner this year, averaging 8 yards per return. I don't feel that James Starks has shown much of anything in the few games that he has returned kicks. For the Steelers, Antonio Brown is a rookie wideout (and teammate of rookie Frank Zombo's at Central Michigan) who has great speed. He's had only moderate success on punt returns to go with a reasonable 23.4-yard average on kickoffs (with one 89-yard touchdown return). I'll say Brown is about even with Williams on punts and is a better kickoff man than anyone the Packers are likely to throw out there on Sunday.

Advantage: Slight edge to Pittsburgh

What conclusions can we draw from this? I see the Packers' kickers being a big edge for them, which ordinarily would encourage me. But, as is often the case, one missed lane or assignment can lead to a huge return, regardless of how good a kick is. I think Masthay vs. the Pittsburgh return game is a wash, so Crosby will give the Packers the overall edge. I'd feel much more comfortable putting a game on his right foot than Suisham's. And, to finish my thought, the answer is yes. Special teams very much could decide Super Bowl XLV.