Film Room: Pittsburgh Defense
Pressure is not just the name of the game in Pittsburgh -- it is everything. Through two weeks of play, the Steelers defense has been unrelenting in its pursuit of getting after opposing quarterbacks. It has been go-go-go all the time, and there does not seem to be an end in sight.
No team is out-blitzing the Steelers right now. Coaches will often distinguish between pressure packages (five rushers) and blitzes (six or more rushers), but for the sake of simplicity, it makes sense to consider any call with more than four rushers as a "blitz." Either way, the Steelers defense has blitzed a stunning 61.7% of their snaps through two games, according to Pro Football Reference. That is just over 14% more often than the next-highest blitzing team, the Miami Dolphins (47.5%). The Baltimore Ravens finished first in the league at 54.9% last year, for reference.
Even if you want to nitpick what exactly constitutes a blitz, there is no taking away the fact that the Steelers are as aggressive a defense as there is right now. They are constantly willing to take a player out of coverage to speed up the quarterback's process and force mistakes. Constant pressures and blitzes make for a high-risk, high-reward play style, but the Steelers' blitzes are well-crafted and their secondary is strong enough to make it work.
There are a number of ways defenses can try to get home with blitzes. Overloading the slide side, using twists/stunts to open particular gaps, blitzing the running back's side, "NASCAR" or "amoeba" fronts like the Ravens and Packers, etc. For the Steelers, blitzing the back is the preferred method of chaos. They sprinkle in a bit of everything, of course, but their specialty is forcing the offense's worst pass-blocker to pass block. Makes sense, doesn't it?
Let's start with a pre-snap snapshot of what the Broncos were dealing with here. Denver will be in a half-slide protection away from the back on this play. The left tackle, left guard, and center all slide left to zone off one side of the pass rush, while the right guard and right tackle take the two other defensive linemen one-on-one. The running back is left with the first threat through, usually reading from inside out. Steven Ruiz of USA Today spoke with former NFL offensive line coach Mike Tice and wrote a wonderful piece detailing exactly how these protections should work, if you want to check that out first.
The Steelers manipulate the man-blocking/running back side with their edge rusher and three-technique to part the Red Sea for linebacker Devin Bush (55). T.J. Watt (90) starts in a wide alignment and fires off into a wide rush path off the snap, whereas three-tech Stephon Tuitt (91) stunts back across into the center. The right guard rides Tuitt inside and the right tackle flies out wide to find Watt. Naturally, a massive opening reveals itself for Bush, leaving him alone with the running back. The back misreads Bush's path and takes a huge step out wide, giving Bush a free run at the quarterback once he knifes back inside.
What's fascinating about the Steelers' blitz packages, though, is that the emphasis is deeper than just "blitz the back." If you really look at their most common and successful pressure packages over the first two weeks, "blitzing the back with the nickel defender" has been their bread and butter.
Similar to the last clip, Pittsburgh's three-tech to the blitz side stunts a gap over to help pull the guard out of the area and isolate the two-on-two for the tackle and the running back. This time, however, it's the tackle who ends up wrong in pass protection. During his kick step, the left tackle catches a glance of nickel cornerback Mike Hilton (28) cutting behind edge rusher Bud Dupree (98). The tackle ought to stay on the edge and handle Dupree, who also declared himself a rusher, but the eye candy of the last-second blitzer gets to him. The tackle reaches inside to protect the B-gap while the running back, who is in the right this time, also slides to the B-gap to pick up the blitzing nickelback. Dupree is then left all alone to close on quarterback Daniel Jones and deliver a hit.
This time, the Steelers don't attack the back by drawing the guard away with a three-tech. Instead, Pittsburgh overloads the (offense's) left side of the line with defensive linemen to help "force" the slide that way. Now they have to send a sixth rusher in order to occupy the left guard to get the nickelback in uncontested. In theory, the left tackle should have the edge defender, the left guard should have the blitzer lined up over him, and the back should handle the last man through, if there is one.
And yet Saquon Barkley (26) botches the protection. Despite being walked up directly behind the guard, Barkley gets so caught up in potentially needing to help corral Dupree off the edge that he abandons the B-gap. Pittsburgh's nickelback slips through uncontested to bring down Jones for the sack.
Blitzing the back, especially when done well with a nickelback, is a great way to put pressure on offenses with poor pass-blocking backs. Some teams -- Dallas, for example -- have smart, willing running backs in pass protection, so it's not a one-size-fits-all approach to all offenses. It's a good place to start in a lot of cases, though. The New York Giants are specifically a great team to blitz the back against, as Barkley is a horrific pass-protector despite his many other wonderful traits. The Steelers knew it and took full advantage of it.
Therein may lie the caveat to the Steelers' monstrous success with blitzes thus far. While they have plenty of talent all around the defense to have some degree of success with their aggressive play style, the Steelers have faced two questionable offensive lines, one supplemented by a horrendous pass-blocking back. The Steelers probably will not be averaging 20 pressures a game through January.
A relatively easy pair of opponents does not take away from how well-designed Pittsburgh's blitzes have been or how overwhelmingly committed they are to bringing the heat, though. It is clear that the Steelers want to revolve their entire defensive philosophy around extra rushers, even more so than they did a year ago.
Better offensive lines (and running backs, for that matter) will surely hold up better in future games, but the Steelers are not afraid of bringing out the battering ram as many times as it takes to break the door in. It is not a matter of if the Steelers will get to the quarterback, it is a matter of how early and how often.