How The Steelers Defense Works, Part 1 - The Secondary

I wanted to string a couple pieces together before the regular season, starting with an in-depth preview of what you can expect in '08 from the newest installment of the Steel Curtain.  I'm going to try to go fairly in-depth to explain what our defense does, and how it works (which may be old hat to some of you), and explain the strengths and weaknesses (there aren't many) of our defense, while also highlighting how many different looks we give opposing teams.  Let me throw out a bold claim first though; this years defense will be better than last years, and will be able to play as good as they did in the first 9 games last year, for the whole season this year, putting themselves in the ring as one of the best defenses of all-time.  To make this easier to read, I'm breaking it down into 3 sections, (secondary, LBs, D-Line), and what they are responsible for, and different things they do to confuse offenses. Today we'll start with.....

The Secondary:  Our "base" defense as everyone knows is a 3-4, 'zone' blitz scheme.  While 'zone blitz' is something mostly applicable with linemen and linebackers, we also play alot of zone schemes behind this with our DBs and the coverage linebackers, who are each responsible for a specific area (zone) of the field.  For example, the reason Ike Taylor let Randy Moss run inside on that first deep touchdown against New England, was because Taylor was responsible for the outside zone, and Anthony Smith was responsible for the inside zone.  Hence, Taylor "handed off" the receiver to Smith.  When you integrate these responsibilities with how often our linebackers are blitzing, you can see how this can become complex, and tough for an offense to figure out where there might be "seams" in the zones.  As an example, particularly with guys like Polamalu (and Timmons this year) you'll see Troy near the line of scrimmage, and our two inside line backers at their usual position.  Upon the snap, one (or both) of the inside line backers will blitz, vacating the zone in the middle of the field, and Troy will sprint into that zone to take care of any offensive players who may be looking to find themselves open.  This is one of the many ways we take advantage of the fantastic athleticism of guys like Polamalu.  

We play a multitude of coverage looks behind the front 7: man-to-man, zone, cover 2, and cover 3.  If we are in a man-to-man, generally you'll see Ike Taylor follow the other teams best receiver.  In cover 2, you'll actually see Taylor or Townsend drop back as the other "safety" along with Ryan Clark, and Polamalu will come to the line of scrimmage where he'll either bump the receiver on whichever CB dropped back's side of the ball, or he'll be among the O-linemen dancing around creating havoc.  In a cover 3 our two CBs, and the free safety, will each cover one third of the field, and Troy will act as a linebacker.  Typically we use this more at the beginning of games, when teams are more likely to run the ball, as it essentially gives us 8 guys in the "box" and limits big pass plays.  Both Taylor & Townsend are excellent bump & run type players, although we don't run a ton of this; mostly because we like to give a cushion so our corners can read the play first and react if it is a running play.  By playing bump & run it effectively makes it impossible for those two corners to be involved in helping on a run play. 

Generally, in our defense, you need smart cornerbacks (Ricardo Colclough need not apply) who understand zones and angles.  One reason Townsend is so effective is because he has such a great understanding of the defense.  All in all, our secondary does an excellent job of limiting big plays and dares offensive coordinators to deviate from their game plan (since many teams don't plan to dink & dunk--except the Pats of 07, who's offense I thought was a direct response to the 3-4 defense, with quick short passes from a shotgun spread formation), this has been a staple of LeBeau for a long time, and further reinforced by Tomlin.  A potential weakness is if there isn't communication, the "seams" (imaginary line separating the zones) can be exploited.  Sometimes it's as simple as a tight end running right along the seam of a zone and both DB's assuming the other guy is going to get him-- leaving him wide open.  That being said, I don't see this often with our guys.  Lastly, the main problem with many of our coverages is they are more adverse to allowing the short pass (see, Patriots game).   The solution is either getting better/more consistent pressure on the quarterback, or having extremely athletic players at the position we will talk about next.......the Linebackers.


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