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Is it time for the Steelers to explore a new defensive line strategy?

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Was the defensive front's dip from dominance in 2011 an anomaly? Could a more aggressive approach from the defensive linemen return the Steelers' front seven to their usual standard of excellence?

Justin K. Aller

Back in January, Craig Wolfley discussed how he was not pinning blame just on James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley for not getting to Tim Tebow (as some have probably unfairly tried to do) because he saw Denver "double chipping" a lot to make sure that both Harrison and Woodley had very difficult paths to the QB.

Wolfley closed by saying:

All this means is that the rest of the pass rushers weren't winning their one-on-one rush situations. Somewhere in the 8 men kept in by the Broncos blocking on 4 or 5-pass rushers, somebody had only 1 body between him and Tebow. And that person wasn't winning.

Naturally I asked myself, "Who was not winning their one-on-one?" and the most likely answer is that it was a defensive lineman.

I know that the knee injury to Casey Hampton and groin injury to Brett Keisel forced the trio of Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon, and Cameron Heyward to play practically the whole game without the benefits of rotation and rest. I also know that those three are all young, developing, and still soaking up experience. So the fact (or maybe just high probability since I cannot state it definitively) that they were not all winning their one-on-one matchups should not be a huge surprise.

However, the problems with our defensive front were not just limited to the one-and-done in Denver - they were present throughout the regular season.

This past season, I discovered Cold Hard Football Facts (CHFF) and how they view NFL teams through their intriguing lens. CHFF has a metric they call the Defensive Hog Index (DHI), which they've been using since 2007, and in their words it tries "to quantify which team has the best defensive front in football". DHI is derived by determining who has the best average ranking in the following three categories (copied directly from them):

YPA - Yards Per Attempt. So simple, even you can understand it. This rates a defense's ability to stuff an opposing ground game.

NPP% - Negative Pass Plays, expressed as a percentage. This is how often an opponent's pass plays end in either a sack or interception. Defenses that get after the quarterback and overwhelm the opposing offensive line naturally force sacks and INTs. These negative pass plays are calculated as a percentage of attempts. So if a team forces two sacks and two INTs in 40 pass plays, their NPP% will be 10 percent (4/40).

3rd down% - Opposition success rate on third down. The lower the percentage, the higher the defensive success.

If you want to know how relevant DHI has been on the field, the 2010 iteration of the Steelers defense was tops in DHI, as well as the Super Bowl winning Steelers squad in 2008 and Giants squad in 2007. Our lofty expectations for our defensive front are certainly understandable - the standards were set by years of sustained excellence - but a drop-off was inevitable sooner or later.

So how much did we drop in 2011?

Our DHI was below average, checking in as just the 8th best out of the 12 playoff teams and 19th overall in the NFL. Giving up 4.0 YPA was still solid but not stellar (9th in the league), while a NPP% of 8.14 rated 26th in the league, and conceding on 38.91% of 3rd downs checked in at 19th in the league.

In CHFF's preview of our Wild Card matchup, they said:

Denver is a team that may be able to exploit Pittsburgh's uncharacteristically weak Hogs. Between the no. 1 ranked rushing attack by volume and Tim Tebow, who spearheaded the Denver's 7-1 streak by producing very few negative pass plays, Denver has a chance to take advantage of Pittsburgh's weakness and pull off the upset.

Of course, Pittsburgh's weakness up front can at least partially be traced to the injuries Pittsburgh dealt with. Pittsburgh's star linebackers (Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison) have not both completed a game since September. Having the two back and healthy could very well spark a Defensive Hog resurgence.

I, for one, took it for granted that their return would indeed spark a resurgence. But given the circumstances (again, injuries to Hampton and Keisel) that clearly was not the case. Coach LeBeau caught some criticism around the professional and amateur analyst circuits for repeatedly calling formations that were selling out up close while leaving no safety help downfield. You could draw the conclusion that he did not respect Tebow's passing game (which no one did going into the contest), and that LeBeau erred by neglecting to adjust the scheme as the game progressed. But perhaps you could also conclude that he was not confident in the front seven's ability to control the line of scrimmage based on what he saw as the game progressed - Denver scheming to specifically negate Harrison and Woodley, and three young guys on the DL who'd had to play just about every down without rotation.

The young trio could've been worn down - physically and/or mentally - in the tight playoff matchup. It is perfectly understandable and regrettable, given the circumstances. But nonethless, the onus was on them to perform and be playmakers - at least that's the takeaway that I got from Wolfley's piece up top.

Should they have been playmakers?

It's easy to reflexively say "yes!" to that question, but remember what we've all been taught about (our) 3-4 scheme. "The DL sets the table, while the LBs feast", or some variation thereof is usually the mantra, and this past summer, Anthony wrote a great love letter to our defensive linemen for being selfless and admirable characters on and off the field.

From Anthony's piece:

A defensive end in a 3-4 defense must maintain gap integrity on running plays and occupy as many blockers as possible on passing plays in-order to allow the outside linebackers to have an easier shot at the quarterback.

A 3-4 defensive lineman must come to terms with not making very many pro bowls or racking up a high number of quarterback sacks.

It's a "Team First" position and requires a selfless quality that not every player has in his DNA.

That's great and admirable that they have accepted an unglamorous job, which they selflessly endeavor to perform as best they can. But something has been lurking in the back of my mind about it for a long time, and it took Wolfley's piece to finally shake it free. At long last, it shed some light on why it bugs me so much every time either a fellow forumite or a talking head on TV takes it a step past defining the strategy of (our) 3-4 scheme and goes so far as to say something along the lines of: "3-4 DL are not supposed to be playmakers because they're just supposed to block for the playmakers".

If a 3-4 defensive lineman is not a playmaker, why should anyone bother double-teaming them?

In basketball, it is crystal clear who commands double-teams and why - superstar scorers like Kobe and D-Wade and the crownless King James often command double-teams because their threat level far exceeds whoever-that-guy-is that's been left open on the other side of the court. It is a sign of respect by the defenders, who are willing to commit an extra man to try to smother the rampaging playmaker.

If a double-team is a sign of respect, why pay that respect to someone who is not a playmaker? Not a threat?

More to the point: for a defensive lineman to command a double-team that helps free up a LB, shouldn't that mean that the offense sees him as a greater threat than whoever the LB is? Or at the very least an equal one?

Why have I been saying "(our) 3-4 scheme"?

Well, not all 3-4 defenses out there seem to be displaying this "LBs get all the glory" refrain that is associated with ours. Two of the best defenses in the league this year - the Ravens and 49ers - made the conference championships. They were among the very best in points per game, turnovers, sacks and were #1 and #2 in CHFF's Defensive Hog Index this past year. They collectively swept us during the regular season, and they both also feature a playmaking hog or two along their 3-4 D-line.

Shall we look at some numbers? In parentheses after the team name is the number of players that recorded a sack, and in parentheses after "sacks" is the total number by that team.

Steelers (12) Pos Sacks (35) Ravens (14) Pos Sacks (48) 49ers (8) Pos Sacks (42)
LaMarr Woodley OLB 9 Terrell Suggs OLB 14 Aldon Smith OLB 14
James Harrison OLB 9 Pernell McPhee DE 6 Justin Smith STUD 7.5
Brett Keisel DE 3 Paul Kruger OLB 5.5 Ahmad Brooks OLB 7
Jason Worilds OLB 3 Haloti Ngata DE 5 Ray McDonald DE 5.5
James Farrior ILB 2 Cory Redding DE 4.5 Navorro Bowman ILB 2
Lawrence Timmons ILB 2 Jarret Johnson OLB 2.5 Larry Grant ILB 2
Larry Foote ILB 1.5 Ray Lewis ILB 2 Parys Haralson OLB 2
Ziggy Hood DE 1.5 Bernard Pollard S 2 Patrick Willis ILB 2
Cameron Heyward DE 1 Brendon Ayanbadejo ILB 1.5
Steve McLendon NT 1 Jameel McClain ILB 1
Troy Polamalu S 1 Ed Reed S 1
Ryan Clark S 1 Tom Zbikowski S 1
Chris Carr CB 1
Lardarius Webb CB 1

In light of the above data, here are three accurate statements:

1). Every defensive lineman that recorded a sack for either the Ravens or the 49ers, recorded more sacks than Brett Keisel - our top sack-getter among defensive linemen.

2). Our defensive line as a whole combined for 6.5 sacks (spread among four players) - exactly half of the total put up by the 49ers duo of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald.

3). A rookie 5th round pick for the Ravens, Pernell McPhee, was half a sack away from equaling our defensive line's combined output.

If you choose to focus on the top five sack-getters for each team: the Steelers have three OLBs, one DE, and two ILBs tied for the fifth spot; the Ravens have two OLBs and three DEs; and the 49ers have two OLBs, two DEs, and all the other LBs tied for fifth.

Do their linebackers still get glory?

In a word - yes. In another word - plenty.

Terrell Suggs is an All-Pro and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

Both Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman are All-Pros and Aldon Smith recorded 2.5 more sacks than fellow rookie Von Miller, who took home the award for Defensive Rookie of the Year (it wasn't close though - Miller won 39-11).

But the havoc wrought by Ngata and the rest of the Ravens D-line certainly makes Suggs' job easier.

And if Justin Smith is not whipping Pro Bowl back up OTs with ease and proving why he should always be double-teamed, then the picture would be a little bit different for the 49ers LB corps.

(Note: Smith is an All-Pro DT, but did you know that he also placed 3rd among defensive ends in the AP's All-Pro voting, behind only Jared Allen and Jason Pierre-Paul? That's why I listed his position as 'stud'.)

So what do we need?

Do we need a Haloti Ngata/Justin Smith?

It would certainly be nice to have our own guy like that, but they are a very rare breed. When Aaron Smith was in his prime, he was that guy for us.

It's going to be difficult to find someone with a comparable all-around game, but the path to becoming that kind of player begins with winning one-on-one match-ups.

We need our linemen to step up and take the onus back off of our LBs, if they have to. It shouldn't come as a surprise if at some point this coming season, some team copies Denver by scheming to specifically negate the pressure from Harrison and Woodley.

Moreover, it should help give us a viable three-man rush again.

Check out McPhee (the Ravens rookie 5th rounder) beating Andrew Whitworth (the LT that Bengals fans like to say should be in the Pro Bowl) one-on-one with it all on the line. I remember watching this Bengals-Ravens game (it was the Steelers bye week), and how Dalton was marching right down the field in the final minutes for a tying score. He had a 1st-and-goal from Baltimore's 7-yard line with 50 seconds to play. Dalton threw incomplete on 1st down, and then the Ravens rushed just three guys on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th down. They still got pressure each time and that's what won the game.

Also, check out Wilfork crushing Matt Birk one-on-one to force Flacco's throw on 4th-and-6. The Patriots faked a five-man rush but only rushed three, Vince Wilfork ate Birk's lunch, and I honestly thought the game was over at that point (even though the winning TD by crushing strip of Lee Evans in the end zone and the OH NO HE DID NOT JUST PUSH THAT WIDE LEFT were still to come).

Now rewatch Justin Smith whipping Bushrod. It's just a three-man rush with Smith dominating his one-on-one.

I'm not saying that we need to reinvent our 3-4 here - I just want to make that abundantly clear. Our boys up front can still be double-team magnets that free up the linebackers to do their thing. But they cannot be passive, especially not if there's only one man on them.

Our defensive linemen need to prove that it is a mistake to leave them single-blocked. They need to make the other team pay for it. They need to earn that double-team and that respect.