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How the Steelers' defeat of the Browns in the 94 playoffs changed modern defensive football



First of all, I love the site. Neal's recent article about Haley's no-huddle offense reminded me of something I learned a few years ago. It's amazing how things that seem at first blush to be innocuous can have immediate, and lasting, impact. In the 1994 season, the Cleveland Browns would go 11-5, with two of their losses coming against the Steelers. That year, the Browns set a club record for points allowed per season (204). The head coach for the Browns was, of course, Bill Belichick. His D coordinator was a little known coach from the University of Toledo, Nick Saban. After the 94 season, both coaches would climb to new heights, armed with the lessons they learned from the Steelers.

Two years ago, I saw Nick Saban speak at he Nike coach of the year clinic. Saban referenced the time he was running the defense in Cleveland; specifically the 94 season. They had a great defense. They went through a 4 game stretch during which they only gave up 29 points. But, as Saban was emphatic to point out, their Achilles was the Steelers. What happened? The Steelers used a lot of one back formations that year, either using 10 personnel (1 back no TE) or 11 (one back one TE) personnel. As Neal mentioned in the article, how does the defense respond? Cleveland, as most teams would, responded with a nickel package and the Steelers gutted them on the ground. The Steelers were in a unique position that year becaus of the versatility of Eric Green. He was equally adept as a receiver or a blocker. Green, and the emergence of Barry Foster allowed the Steelers to pound Saban's nickel front. This forced Saban to go to his base, cover 3 defense. The Steelers would then counter, with either their 10 or 11 personnel, with a cover 3 beater; the 4 vertical passing concept. They then torched Cleveland through the air. The 94 Steelers also had an array of young talent at the receiver position. Saban and Belichek were helpless. This led them to completely change how they teach and run the oldest zone coverage in football, cover 3. No one in college, pro, or even high school football "spot drops" any more. Zone has become essentially man, through pattern match concepts. The analogy that Saban and everyone uses is playing basketball. To defend a pick and roll, the defenders switch. This is a simplified version of what happens. Instead of a strong safety following a TE all the way across the field, he passes the TE off to a LB'er. Or, to go back to cover 3, when a corner gets threatened by 2 receivers running to his third of the field, he drops to his "divider"; the middle of his third. As this approach became more common place, it led to the extinction of the Steve Atwater type safeties. Safeties now had to be able to cover a lot more ground as offenses became more adept at running from one back formations. All of this then eventually morphed into many of the split-field coverage concepts that teams use to combat spread teams in college football.

Saban's and Belichek's rise to the top of the coaching ranks can be directly attributed to the changes that they were forced to implement as a result of being spanked by the Steelers during the 94 season. I guess it is true that necessity is the mother of all invention.

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