Justin K. Aller
The mainstay of the Steelers' run offense for the past few years has been their Counter Pike play. Teams have begun to defend the play differently for the past two weeks, and the results have not been good for the Steelers. What do the Steelers need to do in order to re-establish their run game?
The Counter Pike play is one of the oldest in football. Double team at the point of attack, kick out, and lead through the hole. Simple, brutal, and for the Steelers over the past few years, very successful. Before we get into how the Ravens and Browns were defending the play the last two weeks, let's analyze the particulars of the play.
The Counter play first came into prominence in the NFL with the Washington Redskins in the heyday of the "Hogs" during the 80's. When Joe Gibbs first ran the play, he had both the backside guard and tackle pull. The guard would kick, and the tackle would pull for the linebacker. The play was so synonymous with the Redskins that many teams just called the play "Redskin".
The design of the play would be tweaked as defenses got better at defending it. As passing games became more prominent, tackles became bigger and linebackers got smaller. It became impossible for tackles to block linebackers in space. Gibbs adjusted by now sending the fullback to kick out, and have the guard now locate and block the linebacker. Sometimes, they would switch these roles.
The increase in passing also led to another change. Tight ends were no longer the 6th offensive lineman. They were expected to be a threat in the passing game. This took away from their ability to double team with the tackle. This made the pulling guard's job much more difficult. Movement on a double team made their pull much easier. The guard could pull, steadily gain ground, and hug the double team of the tackle and tight end. Now, since there is not a lot of movement, the guard had to locate the linebacker immediately as he began to pull. The linebacker was no longer caught in the wash of the double team; he could attack downhill much faster. This led to the skip pull technique by the pulling guard. Instead of stepping parallel to the line of scrimmage and turning his shoulders perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, the guard simply drops his play side foot straight back and crosses over with his other foot. This gets him moving down the line of scrimmage, but it keeps his shoulders square. That is key.
With his shoulders square, he can now locate and maintain vision on the linebacker. Because linebackers are able to attack the play so quickly now, the guard oftentimes makes contact with him at the line of scrimmage. In essence, he ends up trapping him. This led to one final adjustment: the path of the running back. Previously, since it was an off tackle play, the running back's aiming point was C gap. Now, he had to aim for A gap and hit the play now. This was why the original wildcat at Arkansas worked so well, and later with Cam Newton. The QB in the shotgun could fake whatever, and then just run straight downhill.
As we all know, one of the original Hogs was Russ Grimm. He worked as Norv Turner's O line coach while Turner was leading the Redskins. Norv cut his teeth with this play while winning Super Bowls as The Cowboys' offensive coordinator. He loved running this play. You could then imagine what a formidable pair him and Grimm made. Grimm brought his knowledge of this play to the Steelers (the Steelers did run this with their previous line coach, Kent Stephenson, but not as much nor as effective), and as the longest run in Super Bowl history proves, Grimm implemented the play wonderfully.
So, how is one to defend the Counter Pike? First, we have to understand that defenses defend the run two ways: they either force the run or they spill the run.
May the Force be with You
Historically, most defenses are "Force" defenses. Force defenses assign one player to ensure that nothing gets outside of them. In a 3-4, this would be the OLB. In the 4-3, this would be the defensive end. Let's use the Steelers as an example. A tight end and tackle double team DE Brett Keisel. The fullback looks to kick out OLB James Harrison, and the guard is pulling for the linebacker. In this example, Harrison is the Force. He has to squeeze the double team (but not get up field) and take on the fullback with his inside shoulder. He wants the play to go inside of him to where all the help is, so he is "forcing" the play back inside. Teams will try to combat this by out-leveraging the force player. The Steelers do this themselves with their trips bunch formations. Some teams will use unbalanced lines (something we can expect Baltimore to do Sunday), motions, shifts, whatever.
Interestingly, one of the best at this (out leveraging the force player) is Stanford. The had a pretty darn good pulling guard last year too.
Anyways, outflanking the defense as I've described, really stresses the defense. The Steelers often combat this by dropping Troy in the box and making him the force player. This communication is vital. It's always why you hear LeBeau talk about run fits. Everyone has to know where they fit.
Ever wonder what Greg Lloyd was doing when he put both arms above his head while appearing to do double biceps pose? He wasn't trying to scare poor Jim Harbaugh, he was communicating to the defense that he was the force. But I digress.
Spill it and Kill it
The Jimmy Johnson Miami 4-3, as was discussed in an earlier article, was the birth of the modern 4-3 defense. Here is where the spill philosophy gained prominence. Just as the force player had to be identified, the spill player also had to be known (Disclaimer: some teams call their force player a spill player. He "spills" but is referred to as the force player. Defensive verbiage is not the point of the article; I'm just trying to keep things simple). In the 4-3, the force player is the defensive end. When the tight end and tackle double team the defensive tackle, the defensive end comes flying up the field and looks to knock the teeth out of the fullback. He wants to penetrate and make contact deep in the backfield. This forces the back to bounce (spill) the play outside. In the 4-3, the Sam or Will linebacker is taught to stack the spill player and wait for the ball to bounce to you. The Sam, Mike and Will linebackers were very fast. Instead of taking on pulling guards, the Mike just flows to the ball since the play is being spilled laterally.
For years, teams have tried to defend the Steelers' Counter play with a force defender. The Steelers simply switched the responsibilities of the H Back and the guard. Kemoeatu would then obliterate the force defender. Say what you want about Kemoeatu, but he destroyed these guys. Clay Matthews still has the scars to prove it. The road kill that Kemoeatu would leave in his wake would cause the hole to be big enough that the linebacker couldn't make play. Or, Mendenhall would just run around the force player (because he was on his back) and the integrity of the defense was lost.
The reason why most teams play a force player will be a surprise to many readers. The reason is one of the favorite plays in all of Steeler Nation: the wide receiver bubble screen.
Offenses adjusted to the spill defenses by spreading them out. This forced the defense to pull the will linebacker out of the box. This put the will in a bind: he had to play the spill but also react quickly to a quick pass to the wide receiver. This was the beginning of the spread offense. Randy Walker at Northwestern University could beat the mighty Michigan Wolverines by doing just that. The QB reads the secondary. If they are spread out wide to defend the pass, then run the ball. If they are condensed to stop the run, then throw the quick screen. All of those crazy gyrations Peyton Manning made famous? A lot of that was as simple as this: any motion above the neck meant run and any motion below the neck meant pass.
This is the chess game that goes on pre snap every play in the NFL. Defenses are moving and trying to disguise what they are doing (force or spill) while the QB is trying to figure out whether they should be running or throwing. This is why, by the way, most discussions as to whether a team should be running or passing more are pointless.
This is also why one of the most cliched terms in football, the eighth man in the box, is also so pointless. It's a lot more complicated than that. That eighth defender could be playing underneath coverage. In which case, he is still probably going to react slowly against the run. Against a force team, the safety dropping into the box does not give you much of an advantage if everything is being forced inside.
The past two weeks have shown the importance of Antonio Brown to our run game. The Ravens two weeks ago and the Browns last week, spilled the counter play. The Steelers did not have an answer. They just don't seem as comfortable throwing the screens to Wallace. Moreover, we saw what happened when they tried to throw the quick slant , which is also a check when the defense is condensed.
The return of Antonio Brown this week should help the Steelers offense in a myriad of ways. The absence of Ben Rothllisburger will mean that the Steelers will still need to rely upon the run game. The Ravens adjusted well two weeks ago to stop our run game. It now Haley's turn to counter.