Keeping Score

A Guide to Looking Smart About the Super Bowl

Not a hard-core football fan? Don't follow the sport at all? You're not alone. Here's our guide to impressing the most dedicated NFL nut on Super Sunday

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From left: Keith Srakocic / AP, Darren Hauck / Reuters

Super Bowl–bound defensive standouts Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, left, and Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji

If you watch the Super Bowl for, say, the commercials or just to enjoy the food and drinks on the menu, the actual game can be a total bother. During the pregame or breaks, you can ramble on about that Pepsi ad or the absurd spectacle that is the halftime show. But during the three hours those guys are fighting over that oblong object and the announcers are analyzing the minutest detail of every play, it can be hard to get a word in to your couchmates without being told to quiet down.

Who needs such awkwardness? If Super Sunday is truly a national holiday, you shouldn’t have to feel so out of the loop. So here are five surefire ways to start a conversation with the sports nuts on Feb. 6 and even teach them some lessons about the game they profess to know so well.

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1. Talk About the ‘Zone Blitz’: Both Dick LeBeau, the defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Dom Capers, who runs the Green Bay Packers’ defense, developed a strategy called the zone blitz when they worked together in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. So you’ll likely see it a lot at the Super Bowl — and it’s worth noting that the Steelers and Packers have the two best defenses in the NFL.

Wait a second, you’re saying to yourself, I don’t even know how many points a field goal is worth (three, by the way), and you’re telling me to throw out some jargon? Don’t fret; all you have to do is follow the fat guys. In the zone blitz, one of the monstrous defensive lineman crouched down at the line of scrimmage will step back to protect against a pass play. Meanwhile, one of the players who normally sets up behind or to the side of the defensive line — the linebackers and the defensive backs — will rush the quarterback. These movements are designed to confuse the offense. An offensive lineman, for example, will get ready to block the player in front of him. “If he’s 340 lb., you are worried about him running your ass over,” says Ross Tucker, a former NFL offensive lineman and current analyst for Sirius NFL Radio. When that defensive player suddenly drops back, says Tucker, “You’re like, Oh, s___, uh-oh, and there’s a defensive back flying by you, and it’s already too late.” Your quarterback is on his rear. “This gives us a way to control the game,” says Green Bay safety Atari Bigby. (Also note that the Packers have a player named Atari, which is awesome.)

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Another benefit of the zone blitz is that on occasion, those big boys intercept passes. In the NFC championship game, Green Bay’s B.J. Raji, who weights 337 lb. (153 kg), picked off a pass from Chicago Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie while in a zone blitz and rumbled 16 yards for a touchdown, concluding the play with a funky end-zone dance. If this happens again, you can tell the party crowd what Raji says is the key to a good touchdown celebration: “hip fluidity.”

2. Point Out Big Five: The play that is perhaps Green Bay’s most explosive and entertaining is called Big Five. The Packers put five wide receivers — Donald Driver (No. 80), Greg Jennings (85), James Jones (89), Jordy Nelson (87) and Brett Swain (16) — into the game, signaling to the world that quarterback Aaron Rodgers is going to throw the ball. “We feel that our fourth and fifth receivers are better than their fourth and fifth defensive backs,” says Nelson. “When it’s called, we all run onto the field and look at each other and go, ‘All right, it’s our time to go out and make a play. Let’s do something.’ ”

So when you see this cavalcade of pass catchers on Sunday, just casually point to the TV and say, “Look, Green Bay is running Big Five again,” as if you’ve been scouting the Packers all year. Too bad the Packer coaches didn’t gin up a jazzier name than Big Five. “When I run out there, I call it Mas Grande Cinco,” says Swain. “But nobody really knows what I’m talking about.”

3. Be Mindful of the Middle: The guy who snaps the ball to the quarterback, the center, is more important than football neophytes might realize. He has to start the play, put the ball comfortably into the quarterback’s hands and then go block the defensive players. Pittsburgh’s All-Pro center, Maurkice Pouncey, fractured his ankle against the New York Jets in the AFC championship game. His status for Sunday is uncertain. If he plays, you can wonder — aloud, of course — whether he’s hobbled and how he’s going to block Raji, who lines up opposite the center in the Packers defensive setup. If Pouncey doesn’t play, you can ponder how the performance of Doug Legursky, the second-year player who serves as Pouncey’s backup, will determine the outcome of the Super Bowl. Legursky, who was born in Frankfurt while his dad served in the 82nd Airborne, is inexperienced. “Legursky has never started a game at center in the NFL, and now he’s going to start in the Super Bowl?” says Tucker. “It’s unbelievable. And Raji is an absolute freak of nature. He’s like 345 lb. of jiggle, and to be able to move that well, that’s crazy. So that’s something to watch for sure.”

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4. An Eye on One Angry Man: Steelers linebacker James Harrison (No. 92) seems quite surly these days. Early this season, the NFL started cracking down on violent hits that can cause head injuries, but Harrison spoke out, saying he’d rather retire than change his playing style. He quickly recanted his threat — no surprise there — but never reformed his game. Harrison racked up more than $100,000 in fines this season. “I’m not going to let a couple of people who happen to have a higher position run me out of the game,” Harrison says. “The guys that are making these decisions, most of them haven’t played a down of NFL football in their life. Whether guys are making $100 million or $50 million, $100,000 is $100,000. That’s a lot of money.” This week Harrison called the NFL’s safety measures “a show” and sarcastically suggested that the league “lay down a pillow” on the football field.

Will Harrison take his anger out on the Packers? Will he cause a concussion in front of more than 100 million TV viewers? “He’s the most physical, cocksure player in the NFL,” says Tucker. “Watch him for the brutality of football.” Though you may need to close your eyes.

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5. Where’s Troy? The unwieldy hairdo of Steelers free safety Troy Polamalu, the NFL’s defensive player of the year (Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, another long-locked star, finished second), has received more scrutiny this week than his game has. But the follicles aren’t a factor come kickoff. What’s concerning is his health. Usually, the Steelers position Polamalu all over the field before the snap. One one play, he’s deep in the backfield to cover passes. On others, he’s up on the defensive line. He’s to the left; he’s to the right. Polamalu is that versatile, and his constant movement forces teams to adjust. But in the postseason, he’s been staying in the backfield and has missed a few tackles that he usually makes. Polamalu sat out two games in December because of a sore Achilles; has he been staying put because he’s not healthy? If No. 43 remains in one spot before the ball is snapped, voice your concern for Pittsburgh’s chances. You could also impress your friends by pointing out this key data point: over the past two years, Polamalu has missed 13 games because of injuries. Pittsburgh has a 6-7 record when he’s on the sidelines. When he plays, Pittsburgh is 17-4.

And once you’ve done all that, just sit back, relax and soak up all the praise for your newfound football savvy.