Much has been written about the changes to the Steelers' defense. Specifically, the changing of guard along the defensive line. Going into this season, I was underwhelmed by both Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward. Their performance this year has changed my mind.
People have been wanting to see more of Steve McLendon all year. He shows why on this play. He does a very good job working across the face of Browns' center Alex Mack, and not taking the easy way out and trying to escape to the backside. The Steelers teach this differently from most teams in the NFL. Wade Phillips doesn't teach this. JJ Watt would not work across the face of Mack; instead, he would just shoot that backside gap. That type of penetration can lead to big plays and sacks. But, the Steelers have consistently been very good against the run. Not for a game, a month, or a season, but for years.
I thought about that when the Steelers really started to play great run defense. Let's be honest, did anyone really think that Aaron Smith was as good as he was when he was in his prime? Smith never made a ton of sacks or huge splash plays, for the reasons I just mentioned. Smith's biggest cheerleaders was Kimo von Oelhoffen. He would always talk about how great Smith was. Unless you were watching game film over and over again, and that was a lot harder to do in Smith's heyday, you would not know. You did know, however, that the run defense was good every year he was in there.
So, with that in mind, I decided to really focus on the young defensive line during my initial and the subsequent viewings of the Cleveland game. I can say that I came away impressed.
Both Hood and Heyward are playing with great pad level. Also, they are playing behind their hands. When playing defensive line, it is very important to keep separation, and they keep their shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. Heyward does the same thing as McClendon does. He works across the face of Joe Thomas. If he comes out the backside, he creates a cutback seam.
There were some breakdowns in the run defense, but as Neal mentioned in his Winners and Losers column, a lot of that was more a result of the linebackers. It will be interesting to look back at the play of these from earlier games.
I've written already about this throw, but you really have to see it to appreciate it:
Once again, the key to this play is that Ben throws Plaxico Burress open. This is also a great example as to why people always talk about having a big red zone target. Because the field to so condensed, the windows become a lot smaller. Simply, if Plax is not as tall as he is, Ben probably doesn't throw this ball.
The other thing that is impressive about the throw is the fact that Ben waits to throw the ball. He could throw the ball early in order to avoid the linebacker. A quick throw and Plax is tackled for the linebacker for a five yard gain. But, Ben waits for Plax to clear the linebacker and thus go for the score. That's the killer instinct that was so sorely lacking this year.
I don't remember Plaxico making these tough, in traffic catches like this during his first go around here in Pittsburgh. I could be totally wrong about that. Regardless, that ability is something we desperately need in our offense. During the latter part of the 2011 season, Ben and Antonio Brown started to get a great rapport with back shoulder throws. We never saw that this year. When teams start to play tight underneath coverage with either underneath or over the top help, we need an answer. Our current answer is to try to run crossing routes over the middle, but we have a hard time maintaining the protection long enough to complete those throws. We need to get better at what Plax does right here: catch balls against tight coverage.