How The Steelers Defense Works, Part 3 - The Defensive Line

This is the final piece in a series in which I've tried to educate/enhance all of our understanding of the Steelers 3-4 "zone blitz" defensive scheme.  In part 1 we reviewed the various coverage schemes and responsibilities of the secondary, and in part 2, we examined the linebackers, a unit I believe is the most important, for the defense to be dominant.  In part 3, we will look at the unit which is most important for the base success of the defense:  the Defensive Line.  This will be the shortest piece, as in a 3-4 the line's responsibilities are pretty simple (albeit demanding).  As opposed to a 4-3, where the D-linemen might stunt and twist along the line alot, generally our guys are simply asked to attack their gaps and control the line of scrimmage. 

On running plays, the D-Line is set to absorb blockers.  To understand how our defensive line achieves, this, a basic understanding of "gaps" is needed.  Without taking up too much space here, check out the diagram on this page, which shows a 3-4 and gap responsibilities.  Use it as a reference as I explain which of our guys does what.  First off, a slight difference, they show the nose tackle as being responsible for both of the A-gaps.  While Big Snack still does this from time to time, he plays an awful lot of "one-gap" responsibility these days.  This isn't a slight to him, it just means he picks ONE of those two A-gaps to attack.  Generally, he still will command a double team, thus filling that hole, and forcing the run to the other A gap, where (if our ILB's follow their responsibility) Farrior & Foote will be waiting.  When he is attacking one gap only you'll see Hampton line up slightly off-center, in front of the gap he will go after.  When maintaining "two-gap" (both A-gaps) responsiblity, he will line up directly over center, and force either one or both of the guards to help out (thus closing the A gaps).  When the linebackers read the guards action (as I described in part 2), they will know the run play is not going to come up the middle, as there is no hole.  At the same time, Aaron Smith on the left will be responsible for the B & C gap on his side, or if there is no tight end, he will take the B & A on his side, while Hampton attacks only the A to the right of the center.  Smith normally gets as many double-teams as Hampton, and maybe more in any given game.  When both are commanding a double team, stopping the run is easy, and when you will see no gain or -1, -2 yards.  On the other side, Keisel attacks the space between the tackle and the guard (the other B gap).  You can see, due to the excellent of Smith & Hampton, that now either 4, or all 5 of the O-Line is engaged.  Now the LBs simply have to deal with either one O-linemen, and a fullback possibly, or just the running back. 

Now, on passing downs, is where the Steelers do some different things with the line.  First though, if we maintain a 3 D-Linemen look (rare for us on passing downs nowadays), we line up similar to how we would for a run down, however this time the D-Line will push upfield a bit more, but mostly to further open up the gaps at wider angles, so that the rushing/blitzing outside linebackers can come thru either untouched, picked up by only an RB, or at an angle that gives them an advantage over whichever offensive linemen is trying to recover to the open gap.  That being said, Aaron Smith is so good he still picks up a decent number of sacks from this position.  Hampton typically comes off the field on passing downs, with Aaron Smith moving inside, along with Chris Hoke and Brett Keisel.  Another package we started running last year is our "Jumbo" package.  On passing downs we sometimes play a 4-2-5 defense.  Smith, Hoke, Hampton, Keisel along the line.  Farrior and one other linebacker (Harrison usually).  In this instance the D-line plays similar to a 4-3, in that they will simply attack upfield.  Basically, this is LeBeau's answer on how to still get good pressure on the quarterback against a spread offense in passing situations.  We essentially change to a 4-3.  The only problem is that this alignment will be vulnerable to screens, as the D-Linemen are slow compared to typical 4-3 linemen.  We used this Jumbo package alot last year against Seattle to great effect. 

As you have read, our defensive line's job is to eat up blockers so that our LBs can roam and use their athletic ability to make plays.  It isn't a glory job, but without great play upfront, our defense would be absolutely shredded.  That's why it's very important for all three of our starting DL to stay healthy this year.  While the LB corp will determine whether or not we are a truly great defense (as opposed to just a good one), the D-Line is what gives us the ability to be in the position to be great.


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