A quarterback eyes over the Steelers defensive alignment on a 3rd-and-8 in his own territory. "It's the Steelers," he thinks to himself. "Who's coming? SOMEone's coming."
A quick check with his slot receiver, they're on the same page. He receives the ball in shotgun, and adds another 3-step drop. He immediately recognizes the classic Dick Lebeau staple, the fire blitz - inside linebackers cross each other and rush the passer, with one aimed at drawing blockers toward him while the other runs free in the space the first one created.
It comes close to landing; James Farrior gets knocked off his route just enough to have him land near the QB's feet.
Quarterbacks hate that. Blitz successful.The quarterback doesn't step into his throw, and is off-balance when delivering what should be a first-down completion to the slot receiver he checked to at the line of scrimmage. Instead, his throw sails due to his lack of balance, and it seems as if SS Troy Polamalu intentionally dropped deep, anticipating an overthrow.
He did. And it is headed right for him.
Freeze the shot.
There are two years of this situation to examine. The 2010 version of the Steelers, the group that came together defensively with the absence of Ben Roethlisberger over the first four games, and gelled offensively in the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl appearance, and the 2011 Steelers, the patchworked offensive and defensive lines and one of the best deep threats the league has ever seen as their trademarks.
The most glaring difference between those teams is found in plays like this. The 2010 Steelers pick that pass off, without a doubt. maybe they even run it back for a touchdown, or at least inside the 10 yard line. In 2011, though, it gongs off Polamalu's chest in Week 7, falling harmlessly to the grass in University of Phoenix Stadium.
They got Cardinals QB Kevin Kolb once, a Ryan Clark interception off the hands of TE Rob Housler early in the game, but it was another game of missed turnover opportunities.
Not that it seems to be a problem, though. More turnovers typically indicates better pass defensive numbers, but the real anomaly is the fact the 2011 Steelers are significantly improved as a pass defensive unit, despite being dead last in the league in interceptions.
With far less interceptions this season than last, they're allowing 171.9 yards per game in the air - best in the NFL. Last year, they allowed 214.1, 12th in the league.
Some will challenge the validity of this stat, saying the Steelers aren't as dominant against the run as they used to be. It's rare a team allows just 62 yards a game on the ground like the 2010 Steelers did, but the opponents of the 2011 Steelers are only running three more times a game than last year (23.9 vs. 20.8 a year ago).
Teams just aren't having the success they're accustomed to having through the air against the Steelers.
The reasons for that are numerous. Some can point to a more disciplined approach from first-year secondary coach Carnell Lake. CB Ike Taylor is having an excellent season (minus his three penalties against Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald), and his success is found simply in his mechanics.
The development of former third-round pick Keenan Lewis, and his subsequent replacement of Bryant McFadden in the starting lineup has yielded positive gains as well. Add in the league-low 14 pass plays of 20+ yards allowed, and you've got a pretty strong pass defense. It's not a coincidence the four teams that have allowed 14 20+ yard pass plays - Detroit, San Diego, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh - are a combined 18-8.
From a strategic standpoint, the Steelers have played a lot of 2-deep looks out of their nickel packages. The twist to that, though, is Polamalu is still in the box and nickel corner William Gay has dropped into the deep half opposite FS Ryan Clark. Gay's ability to cover a deep zone has allowed Lebeau to make Polamalu more unpredictable.
Now, all he needs to do is catch the ball.
Polamalu in particular has left a few interceptions on the field, and it just doesn't seem likely that trend will continue. Turnovers are all predicated on pressure from the front seven, and even with the absence of OLB James Harrison, and the dropoff in production at that position from Lawrence Timmons, the Steelers have provided enough pressure to mess up opposing quarterbacks. His seven sacks lead the team, and 5.5 of those have come in the last three games - when Harrison was out.
Stats don't win games, though, and New England's arrival at Heinz Field this week indicates the coming of the strongest offensive team the Steelers have played this season. Patriots QB Tom Brady has shredded this team in the past, and WR Wes Welker - who's on pace to break Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice's single-season receiving yards record of 1,848 - is a big play waiting to happen.
The Steelers defense has shown it can dominate games without forcing turnovers, which it will likely need to do, considering the potency and efficiency of Brady and the Patriots.
But if they do force a pick or two, it could be a big momentum swing in the Steelers' favor.