Dick LeBeau does not like to get embarrassed, especially on prime time television, but that is exactly what happened on November 14. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots shredded LeBeau's defense like Mexican cheese. LeBeau remembered all too vividly the previous time the Steelers played against Brady. The Patriots came out with a megaphone and yelled to him that they were not going to run the ball and were still going to carve him up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Even with that declaration of being one dimensional, Brady had a field day while the Patriots ran the ball exactly twice per quarter.
It is well known that LeBeau runs a deceptive zone blitz defense that prides itself on taking away the run and either applying pressure on the opposing quarterback or, as Lebeau smirkishly admits, falsely giving the "perception of pressure." Another component of LeBeau's scheme is to take away the big play and make the opponent work hard by dinking and dunking a long way to reach success. The theory is that along the way the offense will make a mistake, get sacked or throw an incomplete pass on third down.
There is a price to be paid with this scheme, and that is, you give up the short possession pass. There are two problems with this cost. First, a Hall of Fame quarterback is LeBeau's kryptonite, proven time and time again. Second, the Steelers have an aging defense. Snack, Keisel, Hokey, Ivan, Troy, Deebo, Potsie and Clark are no spring chickens. Keeping them on the field for lengthy periods of time chasing all the dinks and dunks is not a recipe for success over the course of 60 minutes. LeBeau saw that first-hand two weeks prior to the New England game when Drew Brees owned the second half of the Saints game in another Steelers' loss.
After the most recent Brady debacle, the Steelers did some soul-searching and reconfirmed their goals. Winning 10 games against poor-to-good quarterbacks is not one of them. Bringing home Lombardi is the only goal. Therefore, adjustments needed to be made. LeBeau did not change his zone blitz, or pressure/perception of pressure designs. What subtly changed after November 14 were coverage designs. Steelers' cornerbacks now play much closer to the line of scrimmage. Linebackers are now helping much more with short passing lanes. Ryan Clark will often pinch closer also to take away the middle zone, leaving the vulnerability of the long pass.
The results have been interesting to say the least. The Steelers currently rank 12th in the NFL in pass defense, yielding 214 yards per game. This may seem pedestrian, but consider that A) teams cannot run on the Steelers and therefore pass, and B) good quarterbacks have no need to run anyway. Thus, the Steelers have been thrown upon 593 times - only three NFL teams have defended more passes. Ranking 12th in yardage allowed is commendable when you rank 29th in passes defended. Moreover, Pittsburgh ranks first in the league in yards per attempted pass, just 6.3. Not too shabby for a defensive backfield that has been riddled with criticism.
But let's take a closer look at the numbers. Up through the New England game, the Steelers gave up 252 passing yards per game. That number would rank them 29th in the league if it were to continue through today. However, since the Patriots calamity, when LeBeau tightened the screws, the Steelers have given up 169 yards per game, a huge statistical difference. That number would rank them first in the league. The difference between pre and post November 14 is first or 29th; thus they end in the middle at #12.
This is no statistical anomaly based on variances of opposition. The Steelers played all three Division rivals both before and after November 14. The Cincinnati Bengals passed for 218 yards under the "softer" LeBeau and just 156 in the post-New England game. Cleveland threw for 258 yards the first time and only 209 the second time (Many against the second team when the Browns were throwing on every play). Baltimore amassed 250 yards in game one and 226 yards in the sequel. The quarterbacks were the same in all three pairings.
|Pre Nov. 14||Post Nov. 14|
|Average Per Game||252||169|
While the price to be paid is the vulnerability to the home run ball, the Steelers have enjoyed significant time-of-possession advantages since November 14, a factor that has benefited the team's defensive gray-beards immensely. Joe Flacco completed passes of 61 and 67 yards in their second matchup, but those two completions accounted for 57 percent of Baltimore's total passing yardage. By minimizing the dinks and dunks, Pittsburgh had commanding control of possession time by nearly 10 minutes. In the first Baltimore game, the Ravens actually led in time-of-possession, perhaps causing a tiring defense to allow the game-winning drive in the last minute. In the second meeting, having been on the field six fewer minutes, the Steelers' defense rose to the occasion and made the play that won the game.
Since LeBeau took his pass defense into the shop on November 15, the Steelers have won the time-of-possession battle in every game. In the first nine games, the Steelers actually trailed in possession time, averaging 30.1 minutes to 30.2 minutes. Post-Brady, the Steelers have changed that number drastically. Pittsburgh has held the ball an average of 35.1 minutes per game, while the opponents have had possession just 26.1 MPG. Adding four and a half more minutes of possession time is a double victory, since opponents get four and a half fewer minutes, creating a nine-minute spread.
|Pre Nov. 14||Post Nov. 14|
|Average Per Game||30.1||35.1|
Indeed, there has been a major change regarding the positioning of Pittsburgh's defensive backfield. It is not always evident from the television cameras, but I have been to all the home games (and one road game) and the difference is clear and fun to watch. November 14 was Mary Rose's 15th birthday. It might also be remembered as the day that the Steelers lost the battle and won the war.