How The Steelers Defense Works, Part 2 - The Linebackers

This is Part 2 of a three part series examining the inner workings of the Steelers' 3-4 "zone blitz" defensive scheme.  We are looking at responsibilities of the different groups of players: secondary, linebackers, and defensive line. In Part 1, we covered the secondary, the various coverage schemes, run responsibility, and how the players work together to confuse the offense.  We will do the same now with our linebacker corps, which many Steelers fans (myself included) feel can be the best in the league in 2008 and the years beyond. 

In the 3-4 defense Pittsburgh plays, the linebackers typically get most of the "glory" plays, and for good reason.  The ability of the linebackers is what makes the defense dynamic.  Undoubtedly, the Steelers need great defensive line play to let the linebackers do their thing (which we'll touch on in Part 3), but if I had to pick a unit MOST important to the defense being a dominant unit, it would be the linebackers.  Let's take a look at how they do their job:

First, our linebackers read run, then pass (with the exception of obvious passing situations, like an empty backfield, etc).  On a typical down, the inside linebackers (primary run-stoppers) will first read the guards in front of them, looking to see if the guard is going to block down (which would indicate a run to their side of the ball) or if the guard is pulling (in which case, the linebackers would flow to the other side, in the direction of the carry. After reading the guard, a Steeler LB will also read the running back. 

The outside linebackers have what is known as "outside contain responsibility"--essentially, to funnel anything into the middle of the field and the inside linebackers.  Many times, Aaron Smith (who actually gets double-teamed more than Big Snack) and Casey Hampton attract so much attention along the line, that our linebackers can run straight to the running back and stuff them for no or one-yard gains.  Playing inside linebacker for the Steelers is a great way to get a payday, as the inside linebackers will pile up tackles, and typically you'll see their stats take a significant drop upon leaving the team.  For example Earl Holmes averaged 87 tackles (solo) from 99-01 as an ILB with the Steelers, in a 4-3 with the Lions from 03-05, he averaged 65 tackles.

Second, there are pass rushing responsibilities, and this is getting at what the 'zone blitz' is really about.  Zone blitz specifically refers to a player that normally rushes (like a Keisel) dropping into coverage, while a player that would normally drop into zone coverage, will vacate the zone, and rush the passer.  This serves to confuse the offensive line, by making it hard for them to account for all the rushers on the line, and to bait the QB into passing into what he believes will be an empty zone. 

For example, if James Harrison is poised to rush outside the left tackle, at the snap he may fake one step forward, then drop into coverage into the "flat" (area between hash and sideline 5-10 yards deep), while a corner (in this case, Deshea Townsend) will blitz.  Another likely scenario would involve Brett Keisel in the gap between the tackle and the guard, and Harrison a few yards from the line of scrimmage, looking like he's going to be in coverage.  Upon the snap Harrison will blitz, vacating the zone, and Keisel will drop off of the line.  Remember, most the blitzes in this paragraph are referring to likely passing situations. 

As far as just regular pass-rushing by our OLBs, Woodley and Harrison both show great strength and speed against tackles.  Both have the ability to beat their man to the edge, and both have bull-rush (just trying to plow over the tackle) strength.  They also both have demonstrated "counter" moves against tackles, which are moves in response to how the tackle goes about blocking them.  Woodley has shown (in pre-season, albeit) a fairly effective 'inside spin' move, where he speed rushes the outside shoulder of the tackle, and when the tackle commits outside, he spins across the tackle towards the inside, and the space created when the tackle followed him wide.  He may not always get to the QB as this moves takes time, but he will get in his face and make him feel pressure.

A blitz that we run more than any other is the "X" blitz with our two inside linebackers.  It's a very simple play in which the two ILB's will simply cross, one in front of the other, while they rush up the middle, directly at the guards with a full head of steam.  If one of the guards has already committed to double-teaming Smith or Hampton, then one of our LBs will have to be picked up by an RB, or he will come free to the QB.  Also, the blitzing ILBs are reaching the guard with a full head of steam, and will at least push the guard back, impairing the quarterbacks vision.  You will see us run this play at least half a dozen times a game.  With Lawrence Timmons looking to either start or see significant playing time, I believe this blitz will become even more productive for us, as Timmons is much more explosive pass-rusher than Foote (or even Farrior).  Typically, they will delay for just a split second before crossing and rushing, hopefully goading one of the guards into committing to a double team. 

In coverage, the linebackers are typically responsible for the flats and the short pass, as I mentioned in the secondary piece.  This places alot of pressure on the linebackers to get to the ball quickly, and even more importantly, make the tackle.  If they don't make the tackle, there is going to be 10 or so yards of space for the RB or WR to get off and running.  Kevin Faulk has been a thorn in our sides because of his shiftiness in open space against our LBs in the previous years, and hopefully we'll see Mewelde Moore do the same to opposing defense this year.  That being said, we've already seen Timmons seek and destroy a few of these plays this year, and his speed and explosive hitting power make him a great weapon for our defense.  I might be more excited to have Timmons on the field as he is our best LB at closing on the ball, and he can help to eliminate the short passes-turned into big gains, that have hurt us in previous years.

As can be said about most Steelers units, our front office does a great job of identifying players who can fit our scheme, and as such, we've had one of the best defenses, and particularly, the best linebackers in the league for the last 15 years plus.  With the infusion of Timmons and Woodley into our defense in 2008, look for that tradition to continue.  I highly expect both Woodley and Harrison to finish with 10+ sacks, and Farrior and Timmons/Foote will probably split 12 sacks between them as well, while racking up their usual tackles.

Thoughts, comments, questions?   (Special thanks to my brother for helping me out with this piece...we'll see him around this site hopefully in the future)

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