Defensive concepts to maximize Steelers' effectiveness

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

A few strategies the Steelers could use on defense to help prevent the big gains that have pushed them from a high-end defensive unit into the lower portion of the league.

Keep doing what you're doing, and you'll keep getting the results you're getting.

The Steelers defense has simply allowed too many big plays to be considered an outstanding overall unit. They've played four games, and allowed 491 rushing yards. The 122.8 yards per game they've given up is 29th in the NFL, but the 3.8 yards per carry is 10th overall. Take out the 55-yard run by Bears RB Matt Forte, and the 60-yard run by Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the team is allowing 94 yards a game (would be 8th in the league) and just south of three yards per carry, which would be tied at the top of the league.

They're only allowing 6.8 yards per attempt, which is less an indication of the effectiveness of a defense and more the game plan of opposing offenses to chip away at them down the field.

Simply put, teams are running their heads into the Steelers' proverbial brick wall because they feel they will eventually break through for a big play. They're peppering their defense, challenging their tackling ability and waiting for an opportunity to make a big gain.

There's little doubt Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has some ideas in mind how to counter these strategies. We put our LeBeau hats on and schemed up to areas to emphasize leading into Week 6.

These aren't revolutionary "blow everything up and start over" kinds of ideas, and in fact, they're not even "ideas" as much as they are things the team has done in the past to maximize their advantage in certain situations and seem like things this team could do now.

Keisel at Monster Backer

I'm of the belief if a player is playing well off the bench, that's why he's playing well. If that player's role has been to fill in certain spots, giving him a starting position isn't necessarily going to equal that kind of production over four quarters. Either way, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau needs to find a way to get defensive end Cameron Heyward on the field more often in passing downs. One way to do that could be to utilize a 4-2-5 nickel concept in obvious pass situations, and stand Keisel up wide of the tight end. Have LaMarr Woodley on the other side in the same technique. Lawrence Timmons and Jarvis Jones can be on the inside with Heyward, Al Woods, Steve McLendon and Ziggy Hood, right to left, on the line.

This would help maximize the Steelers' pass rush from a spontaneity perspective. Jones showed he's a solid pass defender, and the plays he made in the preseason were coming from the inside as much as from the outside. Plus, Keisel is tough from a three-point stance, and he can be just as tough from a running start or an inside stunt.

Point being, the pass rush is simply not as explosive as it has been in the past, and a slow pass rush can be exploited the same way a predictable one is; the issue is those are largely one in the same. Quarterbacks can easily diagnose where the blitz is coming and where the throw should go. That's what's happening right now, and that's why opponents are controlling the game with relatively low yards per pass attempt (6.8 so far this season).

Cornerbacks playing tighter on field side

We broke down Greg Jennings' 70-yard run-after-catch touchdown on a short hitch, pointing out how far off the line Cortez Allen was from Jennings on a 3rd-and-short play.

Much is usually made at how far off a defender the field (wide) side cornerback is, and despite popular opinion, this defense would not automatically be improved by playing bump-and-run coverage. The field side cornerback plays farther off the receiver than the boundary side cornerback does simply because any short throw is much longer to the field side than the boundary side. They can give more of a cushion to help protect themselves because there's much more space to defend - "defend every blade of grass," as Mike Tomlin says.

But today, with passing games designed for completions more than gains, receivers are bigger, stronger and quicker. They are drafted and developed to make one guy miss, creating a low-risk throw with the gain of a higher-risk throw. This will continue, without a doubt - the Steelers themselves run several of these a game. If the cornerback plays up a little more, it will chip away a little bit of the quarterback's comfort. Keep in mind, the quarterback will see the throw in pre-snap, then he has to field the snap, find the laces, spin and fire, having to make a very accurate throw quickly. That sequence looks easy at the professional level, but it's based on flawless timing and excellent technique. Plus, it's a short vertical throw, but could be anywhere from 13-17 yards in the air, so the quarterback has to put something on it.

If that throw is not delivered to the receiver's upfield arm, he won't have any momentum to move forward and get in an athletic position to make the defensive back miss the tackle. Allen was simply too far back to contest the throw, but the real sin was allowing Jennings to square his shoulders and get up field. It's a hard throw to make, and cornerbacks don't want to leave themselves susceptible to a deep throw.

I'd bet money the Jets will try a hitch-and-go or some kind of double-move on Allen when he's on the field side in a short-yardage situation in Week 6. Defending that is a different matter, but if he stays at a reasonable depth, he's in a competitive position to defend either throw.

These are not earth-shattering plans or major variations from the norm, but they could shore up a defense that's been vulnerable to the big play so far this season. And they may even work.

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