So, all it took for the Steelers to beat Tom Brady was to completely change their identity on offense and defense. And luckily it only took a decade to figure out.
I know it may sound absurd for me to read into the victory over the Patriots as much as I'm about to, but I think that this victory means a lot more than just the W, or just the "quality win" if this was in the BCS. Instead of every time the Steelers lose to an 'elite' QB like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, or Drew Brees and everybody talks about how that game "provided the blueprint of how to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers", this game has shown the Steelers themselves how they must play to consistently beat the elite QBs of the NFL.
Of course, they were not always equipped to execute the game plan that they did that day, but they have the pieces now to do that. In this article, I mean to take a look at how and why they spent the last couple of years augmenting their system to be able to better combat the elite offenses of today's NFL.
First, we should examine the why.
Outside of the Ravens and the Buccaneers, recent Super Bowl winners have all been led by quality, and at least borderline elite quarterback play, including Eli Manning during the playoff run of 2007. It should, of course, come as little surprise that Super Bowl champions tend to feature elite quarterbacks, but the trend has become increasingly universal, and a lot of this has to do with rule changes that continue to favor the offense. Over the past decade, rule changes have made it more and more difficult for Dick LeBeau's zone blitz scheme to remain consistently effective, and, as evidenced by last year's losses to Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers, it didn't seem particularly likely back in February that anything was about to change.
Now, every team in the league is aware of the rules, and every team responds accordingly to the rules and responds accordingly to the NFL trends of the day. The recent record-breaking performances of today's elite QBs have made teams, especially recently, particularly desperate to find their franchise QBs. Just this past 2011 draft, we saw Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton, and Colin Kaepernick drafted early, while others, such as the Raiders and Cardinals, have attempted to resort to free agency (on a wing and a prayer) to find their building block of playoff success. Meanwhile, Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford have solidified the Rams and the Lions (although the Rams have thus far this season regressed), and nobody in amateur sports in years has been discussed for multiple years more than has Andrew Luck.
While I believe that there has been a gradual change within the Steelers organization for the past few seasons, however, I also believe that the past season has sped up their internal evolution, and by that I specifically refer to the mid-season rule "re-emphasizing" regarding the rules prohibiting certain types of contact with defenseless receivers, which has only been further expanded this past offseason. The rule that was implemented more crucially affects zone protection schemes than it does man protection schemes, because when a defender is simply sitting in a zone, he's waiting for that receiver to come to him and then he levels him when he gets there. In man, the defender is running alongside the receiver, and illegal contact with a defenseless receiver is far less likely to take place. I do think that this recent rule "re-emphasis" has played a significant role in the prominent display of press coverage that we have seen this year from the Steelers' secondary.
Meanwhile, the same rule changes that have continually hindered defenses across the league have also, naturally, aided the Steelers' own offense. Since all teams play by the same rules, it only makes sense that the Steelers' offense would take advantage of the same rules that have made the life of their defense more difficult. Rarely throughout the course of the Steelers' history have they ever had 3 or more receivers whose names were known by the fans of opposing teams. In the early 00s, it was Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress. Then it was Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. Even earlier than them, there was Yancy Thigpen or Louis Lipps. This is because, throughout most of the team's history, they had an image of a dominant running team, and they built their offensive line around the running game. At the same time, they also, not coincidentally, experienced a couple decades' worth of mediocre quarterback play. Now that that is no longer the case, the organization feels more comfortable in handing the keys to the offense to their designated driver: Ben Roethlisberger. In coming to this realization, they have begun to surround him with weapons, following the model utilized by the Patriots, the Colts, the Saints, the Packers, the Cowboys, and the Chargers. These teams have deemed themselves to have the proper quarterback to take them to the promised land, and accordingly, they have over the years surrounded them with playmakers like Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem, Jimmy Graham, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jermichael Finley, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Vincent Jackson, Malcolm Floyd, and Antonio Gates. In order to beat an elite offense, you have to keep them off of the field, and to do that, you need to counter offense with offense, and more specifically, a possession offense that acts as a part of your defense.
Now, about that defense...
For years, the Steelers have only had one CB capable of playing tight press coverage on a receiver since they allowed Rod Woodson to depart in free agency, and that has been Ike Taylor. Bryant McFadden, especially in his second tour of duty with the Steelers, does not have enough quickness to do it, and William Gay had been too slow off his read to overcome the zone cushion, and has otherwise been generally inconsistent. So now, after the display that they put up in week 1, the team finally decided to put some trust in Keenan Lewis and actually give him a chance to show what he was capable of doing. The guy literally grew up covering Mike Wallace on the playground. He was taken in the 3rd round in 2009 and, though was always generally understood that he could play, a combination of dumb special teams penalties, untimely injuries, and mental lapses (punching a sign after being benched in the preseason last year against the Broncos for committing 2 personal fouls) have seen to it that most labeled him as a bust. He sees his first extensive playing time of his 3 year career in week 2, coming on to the field in nickel packages, but playing the outside corner spot, and, more often than not, playing man up. As indicated by the Steelers defense giving up less yards through the air than any team in the league, he's been doing a pretty good job. The Steelers drafted him because he was described as a player who was best in press coverage and was physical with the receiver at the line of scrimmage. This is not the type of player that they would have drafted if Tomlin and Lebeau did not already envision a change in the near future. However, he did have the experience and intelligence to play zone until the transformation was ready to take place.
This transformation, however, began in the offseason. First, the Cardinals signed away their secondary coach, and to replace them, they brought in a familiar face, former Pro Bowl Steelers safety and cornerback, Carnell Lake. Then they drafted two CBs with a pedigree of playing man in Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen in the 3rd and 4th rounds. Surprisingly, Allen beat Brown onto the field for playing time. Allen missed almost all of the preseason, and in addition to this, he only took up football in his senior year of high school, and then went to a military school where football was not his main priority. When he was drafted, he was seen as a very raw but talented corner with good size that would be a project. However, Curtis Brown has dealt with some injuries of his own during the season and, despite shining on special teams, hasn't seen a snap on defense yet. Cortez Allen, however saw double digit snaps in the dime package against the Patriots - about 18 plays - alternating with Ryan Mundy to cover Rob Gronkowski, who simply out-sized Gay last year. Allen and Mundy have superior size and were better matchups for the big tight end. With Taylor and Lewis covering Welker and Branch, and Gay and Allen covering the TEs, the Steelers were able to sustain coverages long enough for their pressure packages to actually get to Brady. They may have only registered 3 sacks, but the pressure forced Brady into early and poor throws all day and he never looked comfortable or in rhythm.
The Steelers utilized their dime package (with both 4 CB 2 S formations and 3 CB 3 S formations) on 80% of their defensive snaps, and played tight man coverage almost 75% of the time, with 10 people within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. This is a Pittsburgh defense that has not existed since...I honestly don't even know when. But a number of factors contributed to what we saw on the defensive side of the ball against the Patriots. First, as already stated, having the personnel to run man cover schemes created the opportunity. Bringing in Carnell Lake created the ability. This has been especially effective on William Gay, who has never played better. And James Harrison's injury, ultimately, created the necessity. With both Harrison and his backup Jason Worilds injured, LeBeau was forced to move Lawrence Timmons to the outside, where his pass defending talents cannot be utilized as frequently or effectively. So instead of dropping off Timmons on a RB or a TE, LeBeau decided to take off Larry Foote (who moved into the starting lineup and into Timmons' spot) off the field and bring in a 6th DB. Earlier on, it was mostly Mundy, the 3rd safety, but every week, Cortez Allen closes the snap disparity. This past game, he saw 18 snaps versus Mundy's 23. With 4 CBs on the field that are able to play man on any given down, with Gay and Allen in the slots, the Steelers are suddenly an extremely versatile defense that is capable of throwing even more exotic looks at opposing QBs now. Those who claimed befuddlement over the Steelers not addressing their secondary issues were incorrect in believing that they hadn't. They already had some answers internally (in Keenan Lewis), and they then went out and drafted not one, but two CBs. They didn't need to sign a Johnathan Joseph, a Carlos Rogers, a Richard Marshall, or even a Nnamdi Asomugha or an Antonio Cromartie, because they had enough to work with within their own system.
Do not be fooled, however. Just because they employed so much man coverage against the Patriots does not mean that they have actually fundamentally changed their identity, by any means. Having the ability to play man coverage merely becomes an option now in Dick LeBeau's arsenal, and essentially doubles the amount of looks that he can throw at the opposing QB. The zone blitz has served him well against 95% of the quarterbacks that have come against it, and it's certainly not going to be going anywhere any time soon, just like the 3-4 is still here 5 years after the 4-3 minded Mike Tomlin took over the team. More importantly, zone and man both have their strengths and weaknesses, and each work better against different styles of offense, so it is important that they be able to utilize both. Of course, sometimes the defense just isn't enough to stop a certain offense on a certain day, on which occasions one must fight fire with fire.
And that is where the offense comes in.
When Ben Roethlisberger was drafted in 2004, he was by no means the unanimous choice within the organization to select with the 11th overall pick. However, with the rare opportunity of drafting so uncharacteristically high and a potentially elite franchise cornerstone having 'fallen', an executive decision was made to take the tight end sized quarterback. While the team was hoping to bring him along slowly, an injury to Tommy Maddox in week 2 of his rookie season fortuitously ushered in the Big Ben era of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Roethlisberger went on to win his first 15 career starts, including the playoffs, the following year becoming the youngest quarterback to ever win the Super Bowl, and the rest is history.
At the time, after a brief flirtation with the 'Tommy Gun' offense, the Steelers' identity was heavily run oriented with the big-bodied Jerome Bettis and the speedy UDFA, Willie Parker. The success of the run game early on in his career allowed Ben largely manage games and to mature gradually into the elite talent and field general that he has become now. In saying that, it is interesting that the Steelers chose first to complement him with not an elite WR, but rather a TE, drafting Heath Miller in the first round in 2005. It was the following season that saw the organization finally try to replace the #2 receiver role with Santonio Holmes. In 2008, they tried yet again the bolster the offense with RB Rashard Mendenhall in the first round and WR Limas Sweed in the second. While the latter has exhaustively been discussed as the bust that he ultimately became, Mendenhall has more often than not been an effective weapon and complement to Roethlisberger's talents.
It was 2007 in which Big Ben truly began to bloom into the elite talent and leader that he is now, throwing then for what is still a career high 32 touchdowns that year and making his, as of this date, sole Pro Bowl nomination. With Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Nate Washington, along with Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, at his disposal, it became obvious that Roethlisberger was indeed a cornerstone, and that it was time to surround him with the pieces that would give him the ability to take over games when necessary. In 2009, the Steelers drafted Mike Wallace, and in 2010, they drafted both Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. All 3 receivers were taken no earlier than the 3rd round, but they all were prolific small school receivers with a lot of experience. For good measure, they added in 2011 Weslye Saunders, who has the potential to be another very good pass catching tight end. While the 2010 season saw the breakout of Mike Wallace, the sheer amount of young pieces meant that the offense would need time to grow. The fruits of this years-long labor are beginning to ripen now in 2011, and it was no more apparent in week 8, with the veteran Hines Ward sidelined and the young Emmanuel Sanders making his first career start alongside Mike Wallace, who has emerged as one of the most productive wide receivers in the league.
For the Patriots, Bruce Arians employed a conservative, possession type of passing game, allowing the Patriots to take away the deep ball in order to open up the middle lanes for not only the backs and TEs, but also their speedy WRs. Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown all had at least 5 catches for 65 yards. Meanwhile, Heath Miller had a big game, and Roethlisberger was excellent, and especially lethal on third down, outside of the one interception. With Ben forcing the Patriots into their nickel and dime packages by throwing the ball 50 times, that allowed the few rushing attempts to have a high degree of success. Mendenhall had 70 yards, but he did so on 13 carries, for example, and their efforts in the running game kept the Patriot defense honest.
With the inexperience of their young receivers last year, and Ward going down with an injury in that game against the Patriots, Roethlisberger could not orchestrate the performance that he was able to this year. Even still, Antonio Brown is liable to miss multiple hot reads and run a few poor routes every game. But Mike Wallace has only gotten better since the last time these two teams played, and Isaac Redman has earned the trust of the coaching staff. Meanwhile, the offensive line has improved with the return of Max Starks, the maturity of Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster, and the surprisingly consistent performance by rookie Marcus Gilbert. Although Ben was sacked 5 times against the Patriots, pretty much all of them were on him, and outside of those instances, he didn't face much pressure, even when he didn't quick release, which he did early and often. The maturity and development of chemistry that the young receivers have built with Roethlisberger over the past year, which was stunted last year with his suspension to begin the season, don't forget, has gone a long way in improving the Steelers' ability to beat teams with elite QBs.
The most impressive thing about this victory, ultimately, was that they could've done so much more. They were average at best on offense once they got into the red zone. Brady's first TD came on an 8 yard field after Roethlisberger threw the interception. And the second TD didn't even need to happen. First, rookie LB Chris Carter, who was only in the game after LaMarr Woodley went down with a hamstring injury, jumped offsides on a 3rd and 2 inside the 10 to give Brady a new set of downs. Then on the ensuing 4th down play, Ryan Mundy unnecessarily held Gronkowski on a ball that William Gay deflected. If Mundy doesn't cause that penalty that wouldn't have affected the play anyway, it would've been a turnover on downs. To play so imperfectly yet still come away somewhat handily defeating a quality opponent is a good sign for the future. The new look Steelers team that was essentially unveiled on Hallows Eve 2011 is very much in its infancy and has room to mature.
On a more immediate note, there are some major injury concerns, however. Foremost, their linebacking corps is significantly depleted. James Harrison has already said he's unlikely to play next week and may miss the following game as well. It would seem optimistic to believe that Woodley would be ready to go this week as well. And in addition, James Farrior suffered some undisclosed torn calf muscle last week, apparently during practice, and some don't expect to see him until December. Add on to that Jason Worilds continuing to deal with a groin injury, and the Steelers are left with 5 LBs, including one that they just signed from their practice squad. If all remains status quo, the starting LBs against the Ravens will be Timmons out of position at ROLB, Foote playing LILB, Stevenson Sylvester at RILB, a 2nd year 5th round pick who started against the Patriots in his first defensive snaps of the season and, in limited snaps, did not look comfortable, and Chris Carter, a rookie 5th round pick who, while having an unstoppable motor, is not strong enough to fend off blockers consistently and lacks the discipline necessary to consistently run LeBeau's heavily gap-conscious system. If he does not immediately gain the corner, he is easily engulfed by his blocker once his hands are on him If this is indeed the lineup that takes the field Sunday night, it should be interesting to watch. I've touted the quality of the Steelers' depth, especially at LB, for years, and now it's being tested significantly. Recent news on Jason Worilds seems positive, yet even if he does play, he too would be making his first career start, and he also has hardly practiced in a month. On the other hand, with the outside chance of James Harrison actually suiting up and starting on Sunday night, there would be a numerous amount of options. They could move Timmons to LOLB and keep Foote and Sylvester inside; or, more likely, they could return Timmons to his RILB position and allow Worilds to make his first career start at LOLB.
As an aside, I'd also like to address the fallacy that the Steelers are an old team, as I don't think most people appreciate how many young guys significantly contribute to their success on a weekly basis. For starters, most of the old guys are on defense. On offense, Roethlisberger is the second-oldest player, along with Max Starks and Heath Miller, and they're 29. Marcus Gilbert and Maurkice Pouncey are 23 and 22. Isaac Redman is 26. Rashard Mendenhall is 24. Of the Young Money crew, Mike Wallace, 25, is the oldest.
On defense, Ziggy Hood is 24, and while the rest of the starters on the line may be 30+, their backups, Steve McLendon (25, who started 2 weeks ago) and Cameron Heyward (22, who's just about ready to start and is far ahead of where Ziggy was in his rookie year), are very young. For the linebackers, Lawrence Timmons is 25, and LaMarr Woodley is 26. At 36, James Farrior is probably in his last season, and Stevenson Sylvester (23) is being groomed as his heir. Should he not be ready, Larry Foote (31) could provide a one year stop gap until he is. Behind James Harrison (33) is the second year Jason Worilds (23) who, unfortunately, has missed a golden opportunity to gain valuable playing experience with Harrison being down. And finally, the other OLB is a rookie. For CB, the only player that contributes significantly that is of any notable age is Ike Taylor who, at 31, has not lost a step. William Gay (26), Keenan Lewis (25), Cortez Allen (23), and Curtis Brown (23) round out the top 5 CBs. Bryant McFadden, who will soon be 30, will probably never see a snap on defense again barring a rash of injuries. The safety position is perhaps where the Steelers are most vulnerable on defense, both in terms of age and depth. Polamalu is 30 and Ryan Clark is 32. While Ryan Mundy, the primary backup, is 26, the only other safety, Will Allen, is 29. Safety and NT are the major areas of concern heading into the future for the Steelers defensively for the next two drafts, although they'll need another OLB and ILB to replenish the depth once Farrior and Harrison retire. They already have options on the practice squad for DE depth, and they've never been deeper at CB.