by Michael David Smith
Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter was ridiculed, and rightly so, for his comments before his Steelers played the Indianapolis Colts in the second round of the AFC playoffs. "They don't want to just sit there, line up and play football," Porter told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of the Colts. "They want to try to catch you off guard. They don't want to play smash-mouth football, they want to trick you .... They want to make you think. They want it to be a thinking game instead of a football gameâ€?
But an analysis of Porter on every play of Sunday's 34-17 win against the Broncos demonstrates that even if Porter plays dumb in the locker room, he excels by playing smart on the field.
Like every linebacker, Porter disguises his blitzes, sometimes lining up as if he is going to blitz and then dropping into coverage, other times acting like he plans to cover a receiver and then rushing the quarterback. But what makes Porter unique is the extent to which he conceals his plans. On the first play of Denver's second drive, Porter lined up at outside linebacker, faked a blitz by taking four steps into the Broncos' backfield, then turned around and ran back into coverage in the flat. Porter didn't have any impact on that play, but that was just the opening gambit in a chess match that he ultimately won against the Broncos' offense.
Two plays later Porter accomplished what he had set out to do with that fake blitz. He lined up exactly as he had on the previous play, but this time he didn't cut off his blitz. Instead, he sprinted into the backfield at the snap, running past tight end Stephen Alexander and knocking him to the ground with one swipe of his right hand, then hitting Jake Plummer and forcing a fumble that Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton recovered. Sacks and forced fumbles are nothing unusual for Porter (he had 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles during the regular season), and setting the offense up with fake blitzes is the kind of smart football that yields those results.
Denver had trouble with Porter's speed rushes all day, most notably at the beginning of the second quarter, when the Broncos got down to the Steelers' 12-yard line. On first-and-10, Porter used a speed rush to the outside, got a good first step past left tackle Matt Lepsis, and forced Plummer to hurry his pass and overthrow Ashley Lelie in the end zone. On the next play, Porter did another speed rush and again hurried Plummer into an incompletion. Mike Anderson's third-and-10 run came up three yards short of a first down, and Denver had to kick. Those two consecutive hurries on speed rushes by Porter were the difference between a great opportunity for Denver to score seven points and having to settle for only three.
Porter is great at the speed rush, and he had to be against Denver because he struggled when he had to take on blockers. On a third-and-9, when Porter tried to overpower Lepsis on a bull rush, Lepsis easily engaged Porter, who never got close as Plummer completed his pass. On Plummer's 32-yard pass to Rod Smith, one of the few times all day that Plummer had plenty of time to pass, Porter rushed directly into Lepsis, who stopped him at the line and never let him get close.
Even though he has trouble engaging offensive tackles, he does sometimes line up at right defensive end when the Steelers use their nickel package, which consists of four linemen (including Porter), two linebackers and five defensive backs. On Plummer's costly interception late in the first half, Pittsburgh was in that alignment, with Porter rushing Plummer. Although Porter's rush wasn't the decisive factor on the play, Plummer's bad decision was helped along, in part, by the fact that he didn't seem to adjust to the personnel. If Pittsburgh had been in its base 3-4 package, a linebacker would have covered Stephen Alexander downfield. But in the nickel package, Pittsburgh had cornerback Ike Taylor in coverage, and Taylor picked off Plummer's pass. Porter's versatility allows him to stay on the field in those nickel packages, when a lot of linebackers would be on the sidelines.
Because Porter's game is a speed game, the best way to play him is to run directly at him. On a second-and-9 on the first drive, Porter showed just how successfully teams can run at him. Denver tight end Wesley Duke blocked Porter, and Mike Anderson ran behind Duke and picked up four yards, with Porter not having any impact on the play. Duke is a 225-pound rookie who only played basketball in college. Does that sound like a dominating drive-blocker to you? Porter struggles when he has to hold his position at the point of attack. The Football Outsiders line stats back up this contention: The Steelers are one of the best teams in football at stopping runs up the middle, but they're mediocre at stopping runs around the ends. If a tight end like Duke can take Porter one-on-one, a much better blocking tight end like Seattle's Ryan Hannam should have a lot of success blocking Porter.
If Seattle does try to test Porter by running at him, it ought to try it with simple handoffs to Shaun Alexander, rather than trickery on end-arounds or bootlegs, because Porter does a good job of staying at home when he is on the backside. On a fourth-and-1 Mike Anderson run, Porter lined up at right outside linebacker. Anderson ran to the opposite side from Porter, and it would have been tempting for Porter to sprint down the line and try to assist on the tackle. But he knows that those are the types of plays that get linebackers burned for long gains when the quarterback fakes the handoff and rolls to the outside, so he stayed at home on the play, ready to make the tackle if Plummer had kept the ball on a bootleg or handed it off on an end-around. He's a very disciplined player.
Even though Porter often drops into deeper coverage than most linebackers do, three plays illustrate why his closing speed prevents opposing offenses from taking advantage of that for short gains. On a second-and-10 in the second quarter, Porter dropped into coverage on Stephen Alexander, but when Plummer took off running, Porter quickly pursued him and stopped him for a gain of only a yard. Later, on Denver's first play of the second half, Porter dropped into deep coverage but then closed on Anderson in a hurry when Plummer hit him on a swing pass, taking him down at the line of scrimmage. And in the fourth quarter, Plummer avoided the Pittsburgh rush, scrambled around, and flipped the ball to Anderson for what looked like it could be a broken play-turned-big play, as Anderson got the ball with Lepsis and fullback Kyle Johnson in front of him. But Porter avoided both Lepsis and Johnson to tackle Anderson for two yards.
As much as Porter's pass rush is Pittsburgh's greatest strength, the biggest hole in Pittsburgh's defense is its inability to stop passes to running backs. When Porter blitzes he leaves open the chance for the opposing quarterback to toss the ball over his head to a running back, and several teams have taken advantage of that. Seattle rarely uses Shaun Alexander as a receiving threat, so there's not much reason to think the Seahawks can exploit that weakness in Porter's game. If Mike Holmgren is to draw up a game plan to take advantage of Porter's aggressive blitzing, he might have to try something a little crafty, like having fullback Mack Strong pretend to miss a block on a blitz pickup, only to run a short route on a screen pass.
A play like that would be another form of the trickery that Porter says he disdains. But it's a safe bet that he doesn't hate it as much as the quarterbacks he sacks hate the way he disguises his blitzes. That's why Porter's use of the Steelers' brand of deception is what has them in the Super Bowl.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. Next week we'll examine one aspect of the Seahawks. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing Contact Us.