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» Four Downs: AFC West

There's a serious need for defensive help in Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Oakland. In Denver, meanwhile, the Broncos must determine whether or not Case Keenum can really be a long-term solution at quarterback.

17 Nov 2005

Every Play Counts: Pittsburgh Defense

by Michael David Smith

As the clock neared midnight in the fourth quarter at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Sunday, the stands emptied as Steelers fans decided that the risk of getting caught in traffic was far greater than the risk of their defense blowing a 27-7 lead against the Cleveland Browns.

Leaving a game early is not the mark of a great fan, but the Steelers faithful were correct: This defense, one of the best in the NFL, won't be giving up any big leads to bottom-tier teams. A close analysis of every play of the Pittsburgh victory revealed a defense that disguises its fronts to confuse the offense, relentlessly pressures the opposing quarterback, and has the deepest front seven in the NFL.

It also, however, showed one serious weakness that its opponents can be expected to exploit for the rest of the season.

The Steelers play a base 3-4 defense, but they're excellent at aligning in sets that the offense isn't prepared for. Pittsburgh did just that on a second-and-14 against Cleveland. The Steelers put their nickel personnel on the field, with two linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs. But after the Browns broke their huddle, Pittsburgh shifted into a 4-3, with Clark Haggans and Joey Porter – usually linebackers -- at end, Kimo von Oelhoffen and Aaron Smith -- usually ends -- at tackle, and Troy Polamalu -- usually a safety -- at strongside linebacker. Until the last moment before the snap Polamalu stood back as if he were playing in his usual safety position, but before the snap he moved down to become the seventh player in the box as a linebacker.

At the snap Polamalu followed Trent Dilfer's play fake to Reuben Droughns and hit him at the line, slowing down Droughns' route. Dilfer then passed to tight end Steve Heiden, and Polamalu pursued and made the tackle on Heiden at the line of scrimmage. The Browns' play failed because when they called it, they thought Pittsburgh was in a nickel package that would leave plenty of room underneath for a short pass to the tight end. By the time they snapped the ball Pittsburgh was in a 4-3 with Polamalu in perfect position.

That was a crafty play by the Steelers, but it raises the question of why every other team doesn't change its fronts in the same manner. The answer is that few teams have the talent at linebacker that Pittsburgh has. Haggans and Porter can line up as defensive ends because they're strong enough to get into a three-point stance and take on an offensive tackle. On other plays they're quick enough to drop into pass coverage. Most linebackers can do one of those. Few can do both. Pittsburgh also has a very good pair of inside linebackers in Larry Foote and James Farrior, and no team has a better group of linebackers on the bench than Pittsburgh's Andre Frazier, Rian Wallace, Clint Kriewaldt and James Harrison.

The speed of the linebackers was on display when Porter, Pittsburgh's best pass rusher, sacked Dilfer in the third quarter. Porter lined up on the outside shoulder of left tackle L.J. Shelton and simply ran past him. Porter got such a quick first step that Shelton couldn't get out of his stance in time to block him.

As they showed the replay of Porter's sack, ESPN's commentators, Paul Maguire and Joe Theismann, agreed that when Pittsburgh's linebackers rush the passer, the opposing offensive tackles always need help from a running back or a tight end. But thinking about that for a second reveals that it's crazy: If on every pass play the opposing offense used a tight end or a running back to help out with each Pittsburgh outside linebacker, that would mean two of the five eligible receivers would block. That leaves three receivers, meaning Pittsburgh could double-cover all three of them while still rushing five. As much as Pittsburgh would love to see its linebackers go unblocked, it would love to see them double-teamed on every play even more.

Pittsburgh is even better against the run than it is against the pass. Nose tackle Casey Hampton has only four sacks in his career, which means he doesn't get a lot of media attention; defensive linemen who specialize against the run invariably get less credit than those who specialize at rushing the quarterback. But Hampton is very good at stopping runs, even though he doesn't often make the tackle himself.

On a Cleveland first-and-10 in the first quarter, Droughns took the handoff on an off-tackle play that appeared to call for center Jeff Faine to block inside linebacker Clint Kriewaldt. But Hampton held his ground against Faine, who was unable to do anything, which freed up space for Kriewaldt to make the tackle for no gain.

Hampton is listed at 6-foot-1 and 325 pounds, but he appears to have done what millions do at the DMV, adding the standard inch and subtracting the standard 15 pounds. As heavy as he is, though, Hampton didn't always clog the middle of the line against Cleveland. On Droughns' touchdown, Cleveland's right guard Mike Pucillo, making his first career start, did a great job blocking Hampton one-on-one, knocking him to the ground as Droughns ran by.

But that play was an aberration, and the biggest concern about Hampton isn't whether he can take on blockers, it's whether he can stay healthy. He has torn the ACL in each knee, one during his sophomore year at Texas and the other in Week 6 last season. Hampton often comes out on passing downs, when Aaron Smith, usually an end, moves to nose tackle. Hampton is a good situational run stopper, but Smith is the more complete defensive lineman for his ability to stay in on every down, stopping the run and rushing the quarterback.

Cleveland had a first-and-10 just before the two minute warning in the first half, and Smith lined up at left tackle in a 4-3 front. He did an excellent job of fighting off his blocker and grabbing Droughns as he crossed the line of scrimmage to prevent what otherwise could have turned into a long gain.

Later on that same drive, Polamalu blitzed and hit Dilfer just as he released a pass to wide receiver Dennis Northcutt, causing a wobbly throw that Porter intercepted just before halftime. Polamalu deserves credit for the hit and Porter deserves credit for the pick, but also note that both Haggans rushing on the outside and Smith rushing on the inside took up two blockers on the play, which freed Polamalu to make the hit.

Usually, the tradeoff for pressuring the quarterback successfully is that it leaves the cornerbacks and safeties vulnerable to deep passes. But as Porter demonstrated by picking off the ball intended for Northcutt, LeBeau's schemes solve that by dropping linebackers who don't rush the passer into deep coverage.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, that practice leaves one problem: Pittsburgh's linebackers don't have much middle ground. They're either rushing the passer or they're dropping into deep coverage. That gives opposing running backs plenty of room to catch passes.

Cleveland exploited that on Sunday. On the first play of the second quarter, a screen to Droughns worked because the Steelers blitzed, Polamalu crashed the inside, and Droughns had plenty of room to run before free safety Chris Hope, deep in coverage, brought him down. Linebacker James Harrison made a nice play catching up to Droughns to assist on the tackle, but not until Droughns had gained 22 yards.

On a third-and-17, Droughns caught a screen and converted a first down. Pittsburgh only rushed the four down linemen on the play, but the linebackers were aligned very deep in the secondary, which gave Cleveland's offensive linemen plenty of room to get in front of Droughns and set up the blocking. With everyone else blocked, Pittsburgh needed Hope to make the play. Droughns ran him over.

Vulnerability to running backs catching passes is not a fatal flaw for a defense that does just about everything else well. But with the Peyton Manning-to-Edgerrin James threat looming next Monday night, it's something Pittsburgh needs to address.

Still, the Steelers' defense is among the league's elite. Polamalu plays all over the field, Porter might be the league's most versatile linebacker, and Smith is one of the most multitalented linemen. As much credit as Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, and the multifaceted running attack deserve, it's this defense that will make Heinz Field a place every fan wants to be in January.

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. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 17 Nov 2005

62 comments, Last at 09 Oct 2006, 12:11am by Richard


by mawbrew (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 11:13am

To beat Pittsburgh, you have to make them pay for playing Polamalu so much like a linebacker. It's very tough to run with him playing that tight. It's also tougher to gauge the likelihood that he'll blitz when he's always near the LOS anyway.

The Browns came close on the missed slant pass to Edwards, but missed by the pass missed by a few feet. Didn't see the Cincy game, but I'm surprised they weren't able to take advantage of this.

by B (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 11:47am

First an article explaining why the Falcons lost to Green Bay, and now an article calling the Steelers Defense good and under-rated. You guys really are trying to stir up contreversy.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 11:56am

Great analyis, and it lends credence to my belief that the next significant stat to be regularly tracked is the percentage of pass plays on which a pass rusher draws two blockers. A defense which does not have a player which forces an offensive coordinator to do this with some regularity is operating at a significant disadvantage.

by Rowdy (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 12:01pm

To beat Pittsburgh, you have to score more points. To score points, it helps to keep your offense on the field. Teams that don't win the time of possession battle can't stop the run in the fourth quarter. I think this is why everyone wants to run on Pittsburgh -- to keep their defense off the field. It will be interesting to see if teams will move the ball and score by throwing more to their RBs. I was under the impression they were already trying to do that, and that it wasn't enough.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 12:16pm


Okay, seriously...

What concerns the most is the inability to generate any pressure from anyone besides Polamalu. Joey Porter tends to simply disappear for games on end, and no one else seems able to get consistent pressure on QBs. When you can only get pressure from your strong safety, I would say you're playing with fire. The Steelers have lucked out and only played a couple of offenses that are actually competent, so it hasn't been a big deal. But that Colts game worries me. They can get away with being sloppy against the Baltimores and Clevelands and Green Bays of the league, but if they play that way against Indy, Cincy, or other quality offensive teams, it could get ugly.

To me, the defensive performances of recent weeks are eerily reminiscent of the worst days of the Tim Lewis defense: Those games against New England and Oakland to start the 2002 season- where they generated no pressure whatsoever, while being completely unable to cover anyone...

by Dave (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 12:24pm

What worries me more about the Steeler defense is their inability to get off the field on third down (second-worst in the league).

Does FO have down-specific DVOAs?

by DavidH (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 12:56pm

To score points, it helps to keep your offense on the field.

Every time your offense is on the field for a play, it means you DIDN'T score on the previous play. I think keeping your offense on the field actually helps prevent the opponent from scoring more than it helps you score.

by Sam (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 1:02pm

To quote:

They can get away with being sloppy against the Baltimores and Clevelands and Green Bays of the league, but if they play that way against Indy, Cincy, or other quality offensive teams, it could get ugly.

Are you serious? Did you not watch Pittsburgh Defense make the "QUALITY" offense of the Bungles look like a junior varsity football team?

by Mike M (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 1:13pm

To beat Pittsburgh, you have to score more points

Comment of the year.

by JonL (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 1:25pm

Great article. Did Cleveland use max protect at any point, and did Pittsburgh still blitz at those times (as in their previous game)?

by calig23 (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 1:31pm


Yes, the Steelers did shut down the Bengals' offense. But, there are two points to consider. One, I was referring more to have they played in more recent games- Baltimore, Green Bay, and Cleveland. Secondly, although they ultimately shut down Cincy, they did allow the Bengals to march easily down the field on their first two drives. They got lucky by having a TD correctly ruled not a TD, another TD dropped, and having a field goal missed. They could easily have fallen behind 14-0, 10-0, or even 6-0. Instead, they only fell behind 3-0 on those first two drives, and then got great field position when Cincy's ensuing kickoff after their FG went out of bounds.

They cannot rely on a "bend but don't break defense." Yeah, it worked against the Bengals before they were able to settle down, but I wouldn't place any bets on them being able to successfully do that again. I guarantee it won't work against the Colts.

by Israel (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 1:37pm

#11 (calig23): They got lucky by having a TD correctly ruled not a TD, another TD dropped, and having a field goal missed.

Those three events were all on the first drive, so together they saved seven points.

The second drive was a regular field goal drive and like all field goal drives could have ended up as zero, three or seven.

by Dave Glass (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 1:40pm

What's interesting is that in almost every game this season, the Steelers' D has been pushed around a LOt on the opening drive of the game. Even in the season opener vs. The Titans, a game the Steelers won going away, the Titans marched right down. I dont know why this seems to happen, but it happens often enough to be a trend. the key for opponents is to maximize the opportunity. cincy could have EASILY been up 14-0 in the 1st quarter but instead only got 3 points...that spelled their doom. Cleveland cashed in on their drive but then missed that slant pattern on the next drive that might have been a score. Pittsburgh's D will always make some big plays and will eventually adjust, but early on there always seems to be opportunities to score on them.

by calig23 (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 1:50pm


Okay, but the point was that the Steelers could very easily have fallen into a huge hole against Cincy. That they didn't doesn't mean that the defense didn't play poorly on those opening drives.


Very true. My concern is that when they face good offenses, those teams will be able to capitalize on those early drives, and while I am confident in Ben's ability to comeback from a deficit, it's not something you want to have to do all the time.

by Sam (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 1:52pm

#15 is correct. I am a Steelers fan and we always get dominated on the first drive. It's as if they're leeting their opponent build an ego only to be squashed. We're 7-2 and barely lost to the patriots before they were beat up with injuries. I'm not going to make excuses, but offensively we just didn't make anything happen that game. The other loss was a given to the Jags. If you're a Steeler fan or not, Maddox handed the game to them on multiple occasions and hopefully you can agree. With exception to our 3rd down, I honestly cannot say there is a better defense high-powered.

by wilbur m (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 2:17pm

I've watched every steelers game this year; it seems nearly a given that the steelers play a vanilla D to start each game, then comes back with adjustments to take away what the other team wants to do.

it reminds me a little of patrick roy, the HOF hockey goalie, who would give you a little opening and then take it away.

the steelers D seems great at keeping other teams from scoring and great at making the opponent go long stretches without being effective on offense.

although the steelers have the defensive backfield to match up well with the colts (e.g.: Ike taylor can cover reggie wayne one-on-one, I figure the matchup of those two units is, roughly, a draw. the real advantage the steelers have in that game is that the steelers' O is the nightmare matchup for indy's D. the PS running game will negate the uotside pass rush of the colts and create opportunities for passes to the tight end.

by Kachunk (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 2:46pm

I have a question about DVOA, and I'm not sure that this is the right place to post, it but it's relevant to the Steelers, so here goes.

Does the opponent adjusment "roll back?" That is, is the opponent adjustment for the Steelers playing the Patriots based on the Patriots current rating, or the Patriots rating at the time?

The reason I ask is because some times clearly do change quality during the course of the season, primarily due to injury. The Pats of week 3 are not the Pats of week 10 or 11, so is the rating of the Steelers and other teams being hurt by the fact that so many Pats are much worse off now?

Also, great article MDS. I enjoyed it as always.

by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 2:53pm

Well, what's interesting about Pittsburgh's 3rd down woes is that they're right in the middle of the pack for total 1st downs. The Steelers are 7th in the league in fewest 1st downs allowed on 1st and 2nd down (though, to be fair, they're as clost to 13th as they are to 6th), and they're 2nd in the league in percentage of 1st downs allowed on 3rd down (.06% behind Carolina).

These sorts of stats were mentioned in the extra points thread about the Steelers 3rd down problems. Yeah, its a problem, but Pittsburgh does so well on 1st and 2nd down that it helps mitigate it a great deal.

And, just in case anybody was wondering, while Pittsburgh is 30th in 3rd down offense, they're tied for 7th in 1st downs on 1st and 2nd down, and 1st in the league on percentage of 1st downs offense that come on 1st and 2nd down.

by Israel (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 3:01pm

#18 and they’re 2nd in the league in percentage of 1st downs allowed on 3rd down (.06% behind Carolina).

You must mean second down here.

by Israel (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 3:04pm

#16 - Wilbur M.
You are right about the o-line if they are having a good day. They haven't exactly been the model of consistency.

In any case, let's hope Marvel is OK.

by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 3:09pm

Re: #19

To be more clear: Of all 1st downs allowed by the Pittsburgh defense, 33.94% have come on 3rd down. That is 2nd only to Carolina, at 34%.

by Fnor (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 3:58pm

My thoughts on the PIT defense is that, aside from third down conversion percentage and the first couple drives of the game, they've really played fantastic ball. Yet we (including us steelers fans) have been really down on them all year. Do we just have heightened expectations?

by Countertorque (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 4:24pm

By the drive stats, the Steelers D ranks 19th in yards allowed/drive, 26th in punts forced/drive and 4th in turnovers forced/drive.

So, on a typical drive, they methodically give up half the field and then recover a fumble near the red zone. I recognize that forcing turnovers involves some skill. But as a fan, I can't really shake the feeling that this defense is more lucky than good.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 4:30pm

Pittsburgh... has the deepest front seven in the NFL.
They have the deepest LB corps, for sure, but front seven includes the defensive line, too, and I've never heard anything about them being particularly deep. If anything, I've heard concern over how SHALLOW Pittsburgh is at the D-line. I'm curious to hear your take on the matter, especially with such a big injury risk at NT.

Also, just for the sake of quibbling, since D-line is included in the front seven, I'd say Denver's deeper. They aren't very deep at LB now that Spragan is gone, but they have 9 starter-caliber DLs. I know this because the #8 and #9 DLs were actually both starters last season. So that's 12 starter-caliber players in the front 7, one more than the 11 quality front 7 players you mentioned in Pitt. ;)

by pr9000 (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 4:39pm

hey # 15 --

"#15 is correct" is no way to start off your posts. :)

by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 4:56pm


Do you have FG/drive and TD/drive stats as well?

by JMM (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 5:26pm

#26 - See the pull down menu "just the stats". The last selection has the data you seek.

by Buff (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 5:41pm

That doesn't make them lucky, #23. If you go back to the article, it clearly states that Pittsburgh drops their linebackers particularly deep in pass covereage. This helps eliminate big plays.

It's by design that they allow a significant amount of yardage on any given drive because that's what they're giving the offense. And when you take into account their stout run defense, it means the most effective way to move the ball will be with short and intermediate passes. Driving down the field with few or no big plays leaves little room for error.

With the number of playmakers Pittsburgh has on defense they figure if you run enough plays against them eventually they'll make the offense pay. So far it's worked.

by Steve Z (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 5:42pm

I’m more inclined to believe the Steelers three down linemen now provide the strength of the team’s defensive front. Porter, Haggans and Farrior have been injured this season while Foote has not been the disruptive force that Bell would have been had Bell not suffered the many injuries that he did. Both Porter and Haggans are pushing 29 yo while Farrior will soon be 31. When realistically considered, they may be in or near to the decline phase of their careers. This physical decline would be particularly conspicuous in Porter and Haggans given their injuries over the past seasons and their need to be fast and quick in order to excel.

by footballlover (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 6:01pm

RE #24 ARE YOU JOKING!!!!!!! Steelers front seven DE: Kimo Von (let me check the spelling) Oelhoffen, Aaron Smith, Brett Kiesel the Diesel, and Travis Kirschke. DT: Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke. OLB: Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, James Harrison, Andre Frazier. ILB: James Farrior, Larry Foote, Clint Kriewaldt, Rian Wallace.

Kimo has been having a Pro Bowl year almost every year except the Steelers D-line is more about gap filling to let the LBs pass so he doesnt get noticed. He has tons of pressures, a sack, and several tipped balls that ended up as INTs against QBs such as MVP hopeful Carson Palmer and argueably the best QB Tom Brady. Frequently moves to DT.

Aaron Smith was in the Pro Bowl last year and should be again. To get 8 sacks in the Pittsburgh 3-4 at DE is amazing(reason stated above). Can rotate in at DT.

Casey Hampton: Pro Bowler before he got injured and still is one. Again not too many stats because of previously stated reasons. Just watch him though and you will see him bowl through the center and one or two guards and still make a tackle in the backfield.

Brett Kiesel the Diesel: Called the Diesel for a reason, great motor and very strong. Rotates in often and is alos an emergency LB is everyone goes out. Had his own commercial (not too many backup D-linemen star in their own commercial).

Travis Kirsche: Signed off the 49ers and played well enough as a backup to warrant the 49ers getting a consolatory draft pick. Great motor and strength. Frequently rotates in at DE and DT. I think Travis plays more DT than Smith.

Chris Hoke: When Casey Hampton went down last year Hoke was plugged in and the YPC of RBs went down compared to previous games. Very mobile and strong. Rotates in at DT and DE.

Joey Porter: Quick and strong. Great instincts and a playmaker. Equally good at pass rushing, run stopping, and pass coverage. If very frequently spelled by James Harrison.

Clark Haggans: In my opionon the second best LB on the team behind Farrior. Is not the most physically dominating player but is always in the right place. Rotates with James Harrison.

James Harrison: Most likely will be a starter if Joey Porter's contract gets too big. Starts if Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, or Larry Foote goes down. Very athletic and great instincts.

Andre Frazier: Another future starter. Where do the Steelers find them???? James Harrison type player. Can really clobber someone. Plays special teams for now.

James Farrior: The best linebacker in the game. Period. All-Pro last year. Has the athletic skills and the playmaking ability to match. Will frequently cover the TE. Calls the plays for the defence. Devestating tackeler, once broke a kids sternum when he was nine years old.

Larry Foote: The other ILB in the 3-4 scheme. Drops back into coverage more than the others. Very fast and uses it to roam sideline to sideline. Reason Pittsburgh fans speak of Kendrell Bell in the past tense. (Thanks Pro Football Prospectus, Freddir Mitchell)

Clint Kriewaldt: The backup to James Farrior. Very similiar player. Very smart and never caught out of position. Called the plays for the defence against the Browns.

Rian Wallace: 5th round draft pick. Devestating tackler. Hasnt played enough to evaluate past that.

IS THAT ENOUGH DEPTH???? The backups could start almost anywhere. Watch the D-line for a series, you will notice that the line rotates almost every other play. Same results. Watch the o-line of the other team on a run play. As soon at the ball is snapped the center, and the tackles seem like they are on skates moving backwards. Teams are almost always using max protect (3 recievers everyone else blocking.) Usually Hampton gets double teamed by the center and a gurad, Kimo and Smith usually get the other guard as well a tackle. The others will help with those three depending on how the LBs blitz.

Sorry about length. (Not sure how to use linebreaks, it shows space when I hit enter, but doesnt post it.)

by footballlover (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 6:03pm

Forget ^. Spaces didnt show in preview.

by Finny Bastardo (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 6:10pm

"...no team has a better group of linebackers on the bench than Pittsburgh’s Andre Frazier, Rian Wallace, Clint Kriewaldt and James Harrison..."

OK, I think 92's solid enough to be a starter for the Steelers or anyone else. Frazier, a UDFA, has shown some interesting stuff on special teams and a nice sack against the Titans (IIRC), but he's largely an unproven commodity. Goo Wallace may be OK, but I haven't seen anything yet. And Clint Kriewaldt, well, let's call him a special teams ace, because that's really all he is.

Much as I enjoy a piece talking up my Steelers, I think this fluffing of the backups is just curious.

by Vash (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 6:27pm

Steelers D-Line argument:
Really, there is none.
Hampton takes up two blockers at NT.
Smith got 8 sacks as a 3-4 DE.
And von Oelhoffen... well, he's Kimo von Oelhoffen.

by Chris Owen (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 6:29pm

Really good article. Great specifics on formations and defensive responsibilities.

I also like comment #1. If I understand it correctly, mawbrew is saying that if you can get receivers behind Polamalu, you can get a big play, and I agree. The missed slant to Edwards was the best example in this particular game.

This general weakness of Pittsburgh’s defense gives me a chance to spout off on something I noticed last year. In the championship game, a lot of praise got heaped on Brady and Branch for their 60-yard TD, and by extension, on the Patriots’ coaching staff for designing the play. What no one, to my knowledge at least, has ever pointed out was that the Patriots ran exactly the same play that, of all teams, the Giants used against Pittsburgh in Week 15. Send the single receiver on the left deep, and send everyone on the right on shallow crossing routes. The Giants used this play when they faced 2nd and 23 from their own 15 in the third quarter, and Eli hit David Tyree for a 49-yard gain. On the replay, the camera angle was back towards the line of scrimmage, and in the background you could see several Pittsburgh defenders, including Polamalu, converging on one receiver near the first down marker. Meanwhile, Deshea Townsend was left one on one with absolutely no help to the inside. Manning just tossed the ball down the middle of the field, and Tyree ran under it and made the catch. He was immediately tackled, and because he didn’t get the TD and the Giants went on to lose, the play didn’t get much attention in the media, but you can be sure anyone watching film noticed.

by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 6:49pm

Re: #23

Ok, so another interesting angle is that Pit ranks 8th is TD/Drive, but 23 in FG/Drive (assuming safties aren't part of the drive points stats - that's the only way I could figure out FG/Drive), which further suggests a bend-but-don't-break outcome.

I also looked at the data in terms of Z-Score rather than raw numbers, to get an idea of how much any trends are. Pit's got a -0.06 yards/dr (very close to average), -0.90 punts/dr (significantly below average), .071 INT/dr (significantly above average), and 1.52
fubles/dr (WAY above average).

Anyway, the Pit D doesn't seem to really be that scary-good or scary-bad when it comes to yards. They're good-to-very good at getting turnovers, especially fumbles. Now, considering there's an element of luck involved in recovering fumbles, it'd be nice to see fumbles forced/drive, not just recovered.

I'd also note that Pit is 0.94 in TD/dr, and -.45 in FG/dr, further showing the bend-but-don't-break skill/luck/whatever.

Anyway, the big conclusion, is that Pit doesn't show much skill or lack of skill in preventing yards. However, they do a good job in either killing drives with turnovers, or, failing that, stiffening near the endzone. Thus, the lack of punts, lack of TDs, and high rates of TOs and FGs

by DJAnyReason (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 6:57pm

Going back to the issue of 3rd downs, does anyone know where I can find stats for all 32 teams on 3rd down defense by yards-to-go? I have a suspision that PIT might not be that bad overall in the individual 3rd-and-short/medium/long/insane situations, but just faces unusually many 3rd-and-short. Sorta like how a basketball player who shoots 45% 2-pointers and 35% 3-pointers can have a worse overall FG% than a guy who shoots 40% and 30% if he attempts more 3-pointers.

by J (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 7:25pm

24, 30

The Steelers are certainly deep on the D-line...without question. Signing Hampton before Ward this summer is a good indicator of what the Steelers think of him. Esp. after they signed Chris Hoke earlier...who played very well replacing Hampton last year.

30 was right about the DEs, too.

Good Article.

First, I would not say the Steelers blitz alot more than most teams. They send different people, but often only rush four. I think a blitz would be considered more than 4 pass rushers.

They send four, but all coming from one side. This leaves too many pass rushers on one side of the Oline, and no one rushing from the other side. I could not count how many times I have seen opposing Olinemen standing there with NO one to block...the pass rush was coming from the other side. Often, even two Olinemen would be standing there looking confused.

by Vash (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 9:17pm

37: Absolutely correct. A blitz is more than four players rushing the quarterback. The Steelers use three down linemen, which means for a normal rush, they will send one linebacker, and announcers automatically call BLITZ! if any linebacker comes. We also have the zone rushes, which send extra linebackers but drop down linemen into coverage in order to overload one side with a linebacker rush. Still four guys, but as many as three are linebackers.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 9:31pm

Re #30: First off, stop arguing the merits of the starters to me. I'm not saying that the Steelers don't have a great front seven. I'm not even saying that they don't have a DEEP front seven. I was just saying that the front seven includes the D-line, too. MDS said they had the deepest front 7, and provided a list of backup LBs to back it up without mentioning ANY depth on the D-line.

Again, I'm not saying the Steelers don't have a very very deep front seven. I'm just saying that I'm not going to blindly accept that they have the DEEPEST IN THE ENTIRE NFL without at least hearing some arguements.

Now, you listed 14 players in the front seven and discussed all of their relative merits. That's fine. Let's say that the Steelers' front seven is 14 men deep before they start experiencing a huge dropoff. I'm fine with that.

Now, let's compare that to the Broncos. On the D-line, they have Trevor Pryce, Gerrard Warren, Courtney Brown, Mike Myers, Ebenezer Ekuban, John Engleberger, Demetrin Veil, Marco Coleman, and Monsanto Pope. At LB, they have Al Wilson, Ian Gold, D.J. Williams, Patrick Chuckwurah, and Keith Burns. Let's count now. Wait a minute... wait a minute. We wind up with 14 names again!

Now, you can say to me, "But Kibbles, Keith Burns is mostly a special teams ace!", to which I'll respond "So's Kriewaldt". Which leaves both Denver and Pittsburgh with 13 starter-caliber players in the front seven. Again, I'm not going to argue the relative strengths and weaknesses of all of those players, although I will say this. The WORST man on Denver's D-line is a starting-caliber player. I know this, because last year he was a very solid starter on the line.

After careful analysis, someone might conclude that Pittsburgh has a deeper front seven than Denver. I'm just saying that it's CERTAINLY not a slam-dunk, like MDS made it out to be.

I will say this though- I think Denver could lose its 4 starting DLinemen and it would be in better shape than Pittsburgh would be if it lost its 4 starting LBs. I'd imagine that Engleberger, Ekuban, Pope, Veil, and Coleman is more comforting to Denver fans than Frazier, Wallace, Kriewaldt, and Harrison would be to Pitt fans. Engleberger, Pope, Coleman, and Ekuban started a combined 57 games last season, for an average of 14.25 each. That's pretty quality depth.

I'm not "disrespecting" the Steelers, and I'm certainly not joking. I'm merely questioning that there isn't a single team in the entire NFL that has arguably more depth in the front seven than the Pittsburgh Steelers. That'd be like suggesting it would be disrespectful to Tom Brady to suggest he's one of the TWO best QBs in the NFL, or to suggest that Tomlinson is one of the TWO best RBs in the game today.

by Adam (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 10:31pm

My opinion is that after watching every Steelers game the past I don't even know how many years Casey Hampton is the best player on the Steelers team.

Meaning.......he plays his position better than any other player on the team plays his position.

by Adam (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 10:42pm

I take that back.

Casey is #2 in that regard.

#1 is #7.

by Vash (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 11:43pm

Obviously Denver losing its starting 4 lineman would hurt less than Pittsburgh losing its starting 4 linebackers... linebacker is more of a skill position, and requires more vision and anticipation. Additionally, Pittsburgh's starting linebackers rank among the best in the game, and you can't really replace that, even with solid backups (which they have).

A more realistic comparison would be, what would happen to Denver if they lost their entire line, and what would happen to Pittsburgh if they lost their entire line plus any given linebacker?
We've already shown that they have two or three INCREDIBLE backups at LB.
Hoke started for Hampton last year at NT and was solid.
Brett Keisel comes in for a number of downs at DE and has been solid.
I don't know who would take over opposite Keisel, but theoretically, Porter or Haggans could take the slot (they often line up in a three-point stance on the line anyway) and we could use Harrison and Kriewaldt as the replacement linebackers.

Harrison was so good at ILB last year he could probably start on any other team in the NFL.

by RowdyRoddyPiper (not verified) :: Thu, 11/17/2005 - 11:52pm

Kibbles, good point. I definitely think that deepest LB corps applies to the Steelers, but there are a few teams (Denver as you point out) that are on equal footing when considering the whole front seven. That being said, FREE James Harrison!!! The dude is a maniac.

by Chris (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 12:28am

Good article.

One of the things I've noticed this year when watching the Steelers is that the max-protection situation that you warned about seems to actually work.

The Steelers get very cute with their blitzes and motions, sometimes outsmarting themselves. and while they could theoretically double-cover each man, they rarely do - Pittsburgh solution to more men blocking seems to be "send more blitzers". I think Aaron actually mentioned in another article that the Steelers are in the low 20s of DVOA on Third Down.

While their LBs get cute, their linemen rarely do and the Pittsburgh gameplan (like most 3-4s) for the linemen is pretty much "Take up some blockers, make your LBs look like stars".

but I think if the Steelers corrected that third down problem (even if they don't), they're the best team in the NFL.

by J (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 3:07am


I agree with the opposing max protect. The Steelers very seldom play man....they most often play zone.

Playing zone does cause great confusion for opposing offenses...it is hard to read who will be covering what zone.

However, the Steelers often give the under....the short passes. Teams that max protect (Not so much to pick up blitzes - more than 4 pass rushers, but max protecting insures they will have enough blockers on both sides of the line to pick up the overloaded pass rush) will have time to throw the ball. The best choice normally to throw on the Steelers is the short, under passes.

New England has played the Steelers like this often recently....even in last year AFC championship game. In that game, NE took some chances down field and were successful. A successful deep ball against the Steelers means poor defensive execution. The short passes is not really poor defense. It is more a result of the system they play.

by Israel (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 4:53am

#42 (Vash) I don’t know who would take over opposite Keisel

Travis Kirschke.

by Lance (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 4:58am

U could do what the jags did stop the run and pray that tommy maddox is starting :)

by calig23 (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 12:10pm

To be honest, I think some here are severely overrating the Steelers' linebacker corps. And I'm a Steelers fan.

Joey Porter is probably one of the more overrated players on both team and in the NFL. While he is occasionally capable of dominant performances- think the Oakland game in 2002- most of the time he is a non-factor. The biggest factor Porter makes is when he's yapping away like an idiot and getting into fights. He's like Lee Flowers, part II.

James Farrior was incredible last year, no question. He hasn't been as good this year, imo, and has also missed time due to injury. Farrior is certainly the best in the bunch, but he is not, as someone else suggested, the best linebacker in the NFL.

Clark Haggans and Larry Foote are both very solid players... but that's about it. The best that can be said about them is that they don't make a lot of mistakes and occasionally come up with some big plays. That's the definition of solid.

So, for the starters, you have: 1 Good, 2 Solid, and 1 Overrated.

As for the backups, it's tough to say. James Harrison looks great every time he plays, although I haven't seen him do as much this year as he did last year. Frazier and Kriewaldt are good ST guys, but I'm not certain how good they are in a normal role- although Kriewaldt started last week and I don't think he made any glaring mistakes. Who knows about Rian Wallace? It's too early to tell on him.

So from the backups, you've got: 1 Definitely good enough to start guy, 2 Good STers who perhaps could be starters, and 1 Who knows?

Depth-wise, they are probably among the betters teams in the NFL. I don't know enough about other teams' linebackers to really say. However, I think the quality of them has been overstated quite a bit in this thread.

by Bob (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 12:37pm

I would consider a zone blitz a blitz. while the #'s may add up to 4 and 7. dropping a 290 lbs guy into coverage, especially when he had to start in a 3 pt stance on the LOS is definitely effecting your ability to cover. With of course the return of hopefully overloading the other side and getting to the qb quickly.

by jeff (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 1:16pm

The Steelers really don't do a lot of the classic zone blitz type of stuff anymore (ie. dropping a DL into coverage). Occasionally, they will drop a LB turned rush end (Porter or Haggans in nickel/dime packages)but that's about it.

by jeff (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 1:33pm

I agree with the general points stated by calig23 regarding Steelers LBs. This group has been rather ordinary this season. I will disagree, however, with the assessment of Porter. I think he is a very good (but not great) all around player. This season, he seems to be feast or famine rushing the QB. Porter is either getting a sack (5 so far) or not getting anywhere near the opposing QB. I think that he is miscast in the role of "pass rushing" LB. He is still very good at the point of attack in the running game and excels in coverage.

IMO, the Steelers need to address the front 7 on the first day of next years draft. Porter, Farrior, Kimo and Smith will all need to be replaced over the next couple of seasons. Harrison may be able to take over for 1 of the LBs and Keisel for 1 of the DEs. I am not sold on any of the other back-ups currently on the roster.

by footballlover (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 1:56pm

On your comments about Clint Kriewaldt did anyone notice that halfway through the Packers game Farrior was hurt and Clint filled in. In the Browns game Clint staterd AND called plays for the defence. Against the Browns on the very fight play Clint blew right into the backfield hit Droughns and although he didnt get the tackle he still stopped the play for others to get to him. No gain or loss. The same thing happened many times in the 2004 AFC Championship. After Foote went out Clint came in and at least 5 times blewup a play in the backfield. Clint is an excellent player who is solid just not spectacular.

The bang on Andre frazier is he is an undrafted free agent. SO WHAT! So was James Harrison, Antonio Gates, and Yancy Thigpen. Frazier beat out a former 2nd round pick. Granted Alonzo Jackson would of lost to a 100 year old lady, but thats another story. He did beat out multiple players who are on active rosters throughout the league, such as Derrick Roper who is on the Eagles.

Just wondering, but with the large number of rookie linebackers in the league could we do a EPC on them? You know Spears, Ware, Thurman, Merriman, and others?

by James, London (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 2:50pm

I don't have much to add, except to say that was another really good EPC, and that the thread has been almost as good.
FO at its finest.

by P. Ryan Wilson :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 3:36pm

Regarding Casey Hampton (re: #40): I made my wife sew "Hampton" on the back of one of my steeler longsleeve tee's and "98" on the left arm. Yes, I wear it out in public, and yes, I'm pathetic. But how often does a six foot, 325 lb. NT get some pub?

by Independent George (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 3:42pm

Is it me, or does this thread seem to be the exact opposite of the Atlanta discussion? MDS extolls the Steelers D, and Steeler fans immediately start picking apart their weaknesses.

by Ryan Mc (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 5:20pm

A comment on the Bengals' performance against the Steelers. The Cincy O-line actually did a great job picking up the Steelers pass rush, and I can't really remember any occasion when a pass rusher came through clean. However, Palmer seemed to have nowhere to throw the ball, even when he was given time.

However, the article concludes that throwing to the RBs is the way to go, and perhaps the Bengals simply didn't exploit this as they could have. Cincy is first and foremost an outside passing team, with the WRs getting the bullk of the throws, Chris Perry being thrown the occasional ball at RB and the TEs almost exclusively used as blockers. Perhaps a strategy which looked for the RBs and TEs more would have been more effective. (or could be effective next time they play)

by B (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 5:31pm

Re 55: It's actually a pretty good recreation of what happened last time MDS wrote an EPC article about the Steelers defense.

by samc (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 6:10pm

The steelers defense is designed to let Polamalu make plays - he isn't a covergae guy but one of the most agressive safeties with a huge work rate.
He's the only safety i've ever seen run 70 yards to throw a block on a touch down return. The guy is awesome but as he doesn't play for the Ravens will always be thoguth of as a 1 dimenssional player ;-)

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Fri, 11/18/2005 - 7:28pm

Re #17: I may be wrong, but I believe opponent adjustments are rolled back. So today the game against NE counts as one against NE today, not against them in week whatever. Also, weighted DVOA places more emphasis on the most recent games, so as the season goes on the early games count less, which complements the rollback effect.

Max-protect is a good strategy, as long as it doesn't become too predictable. If you use it when matched up against a zone, the receivers will have time to find holes in the zone (unless the D reads max protect quick enough to tighten up or double/man up). Obviously, if the defense is expecting it, they'll play it differently. I've seen it several times that their answer to max-protect is to blitz more. I wonder if that may be a function of the coverage assignments. That is, each LB has a man to watch, and if he stays in to block, the LB is told to blitz? In a max-protect, you'd wind up with several LB/S blitzing since their 'target' player stayed in. Just a possibility, I guess.

Did you happen to see how often they did use the zone rush/blitz? How often they dropped a lineman into coverage? There are so many possible variations of this, did they tend towards one in particular, or were there many different flavors?

Uh, I mean... you idiot, how dare you call them underrated? You didn't even play in the NFL, what can you possibly know?

by smong (not verified) :: Sat, 11/19/2005 - 1:13am

Polamalu is used much the same way as Brian Urlacher was used in college. New Mexico employed a zone blitz where Urlacher played every position from lineman, to backer, to safety, to corner.

by Kibbles (not verified) :: Mon, 11/21/2005 - 2:40pm

Re #42: Obviously Denver losing its starting 4 lineman would hurt less than Pittsburgh losing its starting 4 linebackers… linebacker is more of a skill position, and requires more vision and anticipation. Additionally, Pittsburgh’s starting linebackers rank among the best in the game, and you can’t really replace that, even with solid backups (which they have).

Oh REAAAAAAALLY now. LBs are much harder to replace than DLs. Uh huh. Please explain to me, then, why DLs make so much more money. And while you're at it, ask a Pats fan if they'd rather play without Tedy Bruschi or Richard Seymour.

Fact is, according to the people who know best, (NFL General Managers), LBs are one of the least irreplacable positions in the NFL, ahead of only Guards, Centers, and Safeties.

Also, I'd like to remind you that two seasons ago Denver placed 3 LBs on injured reserve, replacing all-pros Ian Gold and John Mobley, and second round pick Terry Pierce, with who-dats like Donnie Spragan. And their defense still finished in the top-5 in the league.

To be honest, I think some here are severely overrating the Steelers’ linebacker corps. And I’m a Steelers fan.
I agree, but I didn't want to open that whole can of worms when I was really just contending that there are other teams with equally deep front sevens. That said, with the huge decline of Baltimores LBs, and the way that Tennessee's entire defense has fallen appart (except for Bulluck, who I'm a big fan of), and New England's collapse, not many of the traditional powers at LB are really that great anymore- so I still think that Pitt has one of the best LB corps in the league. Just nowhere near as elite as they've been in the past several years.

Miami would be up there, if Junior Seau was only 5 years younger. Denver's clearly also got one of the best LB corps in the entire NFL. I have to admit, though, that I don't follow the NFC much at all. Anyone have some insight on who is the class of the NFC when it comes to LBs, and how they compare to the traditional AFC powers?

by Richard (not verified) :: Mon, 10/09/2006 - 12:11am

didn't the Steelers at one time have a defensive back by the name of Donnie Edwards ?