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The Steelers' history of using late round picks to find defensive linemen is well documented. The plights of Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward have also been well documented. Why is the learning curve for Steeler defensive linemen so steep? What makes playing defensive line for the Steelers so different from many college and pro teams? What do the Steelers look for when projecting someone to play defensive line one day?
The Steelers' defensive line has a unique job. It is there job to make everyone else on the defense look good. It has been written exhaustively that the John Mitchell has to "de-train" what prospects have done in college to prepare them to play the "Steeler Way." What does that mean? And, do the Steelers need to adjust their philosophy because of the now, pass-first NFL?
The Evolution of Defensive Linemen
The SEC pretty much dominates college football nowadays. Nowhere is the dominance of that conference more pronounced than in the talent that populates the defensive lines in. With the rise of the Miami Hurricanes, speed began to become paramount in college football. That speed did not end with the back seven. Colleges soon began to see the benefits of playing with a fast and explosive defensive line. Legendary LSU defensive line coach Pete Jenkins took this philosophy and started to change the way that defensive linemen were taught. No longer were defensive linemen taught to read and react to the block of the offensive linemen. Instead, penetration and the ability to get off the ball became paramount.
In my opinion, one of the most interesting and under-reported elements of college football over the past 20 years has been the fact that no one recruits defensive linemen out of high school anymore. Normally, you don't see 300 pound kids being recruited to play a 3 technique. Instead, high school running backs, like Casey Hampton, are converted into athletic defensive linemen. Those 300 pound kids now become offensive linemen. Of course, there are exceptions, but for the most part this mostly holds true.
For decades, the idea of having a huge, immovable object to clog up space dominated the thinking of most coaches. Soon, however, coaches began to see and find athletes that could hold the point of attack and also get off blocks because of their athleticism. The biggest mismatch in football today is an offensive linemen versus a defensive linemen. The defensive linemen, 9 times out of 10, is going to be quicker, faster, stronger and more explosive.
As defensive linemen became better athletes, how they were coached also changed. They are now coached to be playmakers. In today's game, defensive linemen are not taught to occupy two blockers and allow the linebackers to get all of the glory. Instead, defensive linemen are taught to get up the field and penetrate. Get in the backfield and make a play. Modern defensive line play can be basically broken down into three areas: Get-off, escape, redirection.
To play defensive line in the NFL, you've got to be able to explode off of the football. Defensive linemen have to be able to explode out of their stance horizontally, not vertically. As I have pointed out in all of the positional profiles so far, flexibility in the ankles, knees and hips is key. Simply, no one in the NFL has ever gotten cut because they had too much bend. Just about every defensive line coach in the nation starts out his Indy period with a get-off drill. Rod Marinelli, while with Tampa Bay, would paint the football green during his get-off drills. He felt that this improved his players'ability to focus on the brown football on gamedays.
Footwork changes with the preference of the coach. Some coaches take taking a big first step, much like a sprinter exploding out of the blocks. Others teach a 6 inch gather step with a bigger second step. All coaches teach the importance of the second step. The offensive lineman knows the snap count; therefore, his first step will always beat the defensive linemen. But, whoever gets their second step down first wins. All coaches teach the importance of getting the second step in grass. Whomever gets the second foot down first will be the one who is in a position of power.
Next comes the aiming point. Modern day defensive linemen are lined up in a shaded technique. They are aligned on half of the offensive linemen. Their primary gap is the gap they are aligned in. Defensive linemen want to attack half a man. Thus, their inside hand normally goes on the breastplate and their outside hand goes on the shoulder. Ultimately, the defensive linemen wants to turn the blocker. This occurs when they are able to extend their arms and play underneath their hands.
Now, the hand fighting comes in. A defensive lineman always wants his hands to be inside of the offensive linemen. From that position, he can then extend his outside arm, pull with his inside hand, and turn his hips. Once he is no longer square on the blocker, he can now rip through and disengage.
This is the part that really separates a good from a great player. Great players are usually able to recognize or feel a blocking scheme and thus now where the ball is supposed to be going. It does no good, on a run or pass play, if a defensive lineman just continues to run straight up the field. Instead, they need to redirect and find the ball. This redirection requires the defender to go from an all out explosion, to a stop (agility), lower your center of gravity (flexibility), and close to the football (power). That is the modern day defensive lineman.
The Steeler Way
Just about everything that I have described above can also be attributed to a Steeler defensive linemen. But, of course, there are some very important differences.
First, the Steelers do not play from a shade alignment in their base defense. They play head-up on the blocker. That is because Steeler defensive linemen, as we all know, 2 gap. Many people believe, wrongly, that the Steelers do not want their defensive linemen to penetrate. Not true. But, Steeler defensive linemen have to go through the whole blocker, not just a side. Think of all the times Casey Hampton drove the center 3 yards back and then made a tackle. That's penetration. But, he does not pick a side. He goes through the man. Because he is square, he has a two-way go. Also because he is square, the escape is more difficult. Therefore, he will not make the solo tackle, but he will oftentimes slow the running back down enough to allow the rest of the gang to get there.
2 gapping is very effective against the run because it allows people to make mistakes. If the linebacker makes a bad read, the defensive linemen can still bail him out. This is why the Steelers so rarely give up long runs. But, it is also why the Steeler defensive linemen do not get sacks. Steeler defensive linemen are taught to maintain their head up alignment. Therefore, they need to read the offensive linemen. This is why they don't align in the track stances that other defensive linemen do. Instead, their feet are even because they have to be ready to move laterally. They are not attacking up the field. They will instead try to mirror the first step of the offensive linemen, explode with their hips, and play extremely physical. You have to be one, tough dude to play d-line for the Steelers. It is a violent collision with every snap. This is why guys like Chris Hoke are able to excel for the Steelers. What they may lack in athleticism is made up for with grit. This grit also translates well into technique. Once you get the technique mastered, you have what we've had in Pittsburgh for a while now: a great run defense.
The Steelers play defensive line in an old-school manner. They read the offensive blocker, and they play with great technique and pad level. Nebraska in 1995 was the final bastion of the old-school college football. Nebraska trapped an over-penetrating Warren Sapp on their way to a national championship. Fortunately for Warren, not many teams ran the inside trap in the NFL. So, Warren Sapp over-penetrated his way to numerous sacks and a Hall of Fame career. Sapp, the high school tight end and linebacker, epitomized the modern day defensive lineman.
Is the Steeler way outdated? Not as long as Lamar Woodley stays away from the buffet line. It's the job of the Outside Linebackers in this defense to get up the field and get sacks. Look at James Harrison's stance. From a 2 point, he is in that staggered track stance. He is not reading; he is looking to get up the field and attack the quarterback.
With that being said, one can definitely see the correlation between this article and Neal's from Sunday. Would the Steelers have been better off spending those high draft picks on fast-twitch freaks coming off the edge? Would they have been better off looking for tough, gritty defensive linemen that dropped a few slots because of a lack of speed, but made up for it with great coach-ability? Or, did the Steelers feel the need to draft defensive linemen higher because they wanted to squeeze what they could out of the likes of Smith and Hampton because the opportunity to win a 7th ring was real? But, they knew those guys would break down fast thus forcing them the development of the young defensive line to be quickened. The answer to those questions will probably have a huge bearing on the fortunes of this team for the next 5 years.