Steelers' top-ranked defense suffocating opponents with less pressure

Jeff Zelevansky

The Steelers defense leads the NFL in several defensive categories, but the gap between them and the rest of the league gets significantly wider when looking at the past seven games. The once-feared Blitzburgh defense is sending fewer defenders after the passer, and the results are staggering.

The notion of Blitzburgh has been replaced with a more conventional approach.

Long-standing traditions and notions about defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense have been shattered over the last seven games this season, and replaced with the simple concept of forcing passes from opposing quarterbacks to hit the ground.

Sacks and interceptions are coming a bit more frequently now than they have over the last two seasons, but this defense is thriving on generating less pressure and covering receivers more diligently.

It just took the group a few games to get into rhythm.

The Steelers attacked quarterbacks aggressively in the first five games this season, sending five or more pass rushers after the passer on 48.5 percent of the opposing team's throws.

In those games, they were burned by Denver's Peyton Manning and Oakland's Carson Palmer. They were able to stop the Jets' Mark Sanchez and Philadelphia's Michael Vick, but that's essentially par for the course this year. After Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck ripped the lane outside the numbers for big completion after big completion, it was clearly time for a few changes.

The Steelers dialed off the blitz - or at least they didn't rush five or more very often.

Since that potentially post-season-fatal loss at Tennessee in Week 6, the Steelers are 5-2, having allowed 101 offensive points (not including defensive and special teams touchdowns), or, just 14.4 points a game with many of those coming off short fields set up from their offense's turnovers. They only brought five or more rushers on 28.8 percent of passing plays.

The Steelers have become the ultimate coverage team in the NFL.

That doesn't mean, however, they aren't still bringing the exotic blitz packaging they have in the past. It's just happening with only four rushers. The results may have saved the season.

At 2-3, the Steelers were a greatly struggling defensive unit. Since that slogging start, they're allowing 142 passing yards a game while opposing quarterbacks are completing 50.7 percent of their passes.

comp att percent yards Y/A Y/game TD INT sacks
TOTAL 202 366 55.2% 2000 5.46 167 13 8 25
First Five 98 161 60.9% 1004 6.24 200.80 9 2 11
Last Seven 104 205 50.7% 996 4.86 142.29 4 5 14

The Steelers defense currently leads the league in passing yards per attempt (5.8) and yards per game (167), are tied for fourth in rating against (76.4) and completion percentage (55.2).

Their numbers from Week 7 through Week 13 are all lower than their season totals.

So what will San Diego do? Without the blitz that makes so many bad quarterback suffer and so many good ones thrive, the Steelers defense forces offenses to be defensive in their play selection. They look to establish shorter passing to try to set up deeper throws outside the numbers.

The Chargers will have a significant size advantage with their receivers going against any cornerback group in the league, but with a surging pass rush that's coming more off precision blitzing as opposed to overwhelming pressure, getting the ball deeper down the field gets harder. Not to mention air-tight coverage has only allowed a little better than one of every two passes to be completed.

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