ORCHARD PARK NY - NOVEMBER 28: James Harrison #92 of the Pittsburgh Steelers rises after hitting Ryan Fitzpatrick of the Buffalo Bills during their game at Ralph Wilson Stadium on November 28 2010 in Orchard Park New York. Harrison was flagged for roughing the passer during the play. (Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images)
ESPN's NFC North writer, Kevin Seifert, caught up with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin during the owner's meetings this winter. Tomlin, the Vikings defensive coordinator in 2006 when Seifert covered them for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, re-connected with him over a discussion about the rising passing numbers in the game recently.
Tomlin's response was, as usual, the perfect blend of confidence and preparation. Per Seifert, Tomlin scoffed at the notion there is no counter to the jacked up passing attacks, citing the Wildcat fad of recent memory.
"It was amazing a few years ago that we sat in here and we talked about the Wildcat," Tomlin said. "Ohhh, the Wiiiiiildcat. I bet no one has a Wildcat question today, because there is a counterpunch defensively. That's the awesome thing about football. There are guys in labs right now, like [Steelers defensive coordinator] Dick LeBeau, working on that and responding to things."
Seifert writes an excellent piece, showing the league's passer rating has increased from 75.2 in 1987 to 84 in 2011. That's the highest passer rating the league has ever seen.
In that lab, though, what's LeBeau scheming? How is Indianapolis' Chuck Pagano planning his counterpunch?
Super Bowl XLII was one of the league's biggest upsets of all time because the upstart Giants figured out how to get pressure with four pass rushers, while covering the powerful Patriots passing attack with seven players - oftentimes four defensive backs and three linebackers. They could cover in a nickel package while still getting that same pass rush.
Perhaps this theory - and whether it's done from a 4-3 alignment or a 3-4 is irrelevant - is behind why the Steelers selected coverage linebacker Sean Spence in the third round. Their recent run on cornerbacks (Keenan Lewis, third round 2009), Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen (third and fourth round, 2011) shows a commitment to depth in coverage. It sets up a situation in which the Steelers can put coverage-heavy defenses on the field without sacrificing pass rushers.
But maybe it's not about covering the receivers running the routes, but rather, getting to the quarterbacks throwing the ball.
It almost has to be that way. While it's easy to say rules are slanted to protect quarterbacks, the rules that really impact the game are the ones slanted toward receivers. Lack of contact before five yards essentially gives monsters like Calvin Johnson five free yards in which to get his massive frame moving downfield and into his route, whichever of those he's running. Not that much contact can be made with him anyway, one flag from the official means an automatic first down, whether the catch earns one or not. Even worse, if it's deep down the field, the offense gets that first down at the spot of the foul.
Simply put, coverage is far harder than it used to be. It seems much easier to get pass rushers who can move past blockers and hit a (much smaller) target on the quarterback while he still has the ball.
This theory makes sense, until you look at the Steelers in 2011. In a weird defensive year, the Steelers led the league in passing yards allowed and scoring defense while finishing with only 35 sacks. Pressure does not necessarily mean sacks, and they did generate pressure, but it's odd to be that successful against the pass while taking the quarterback down less than seven percent of all throws.
However they plan to do it, teams will need both a dominant pass rush and outstanding coverage to stop the passing deluge.
Seifert quotes an NFC executive saying, ""You're not going to stop (offenses). The league is built around prolific offenses. We're never going back to the days of a team scoring in single digits. Let's face the facts. The rules just are very much in favor of the offenses."
LeBeau is in that lab, though. The track record of the products created and implemented in and from that lab is pretty good. Remember the Wildcat?