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How the Steelers will get more interceptions in 2013

An obvious point of emphasis for the Steeler defense this off season is to create more turnovers. Specifically, the defense has struggled in recent years to get interceptions. With more experience at the nickel position in 2013, what can the Steelers do schematically to help reverse this recent trend?

Karl Walter

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: if Ike Taylor catches the balls that are thrown at him, there probably wouldn't be a need to write this article.

Probably every secondary coach in the NFL makes this a point of emphasis on the first day of mini camp. If the secondary just catches the balls that are thrown right at them, they would lead the NFL in interceptions. However, I don't see Taylor making strides in this area after all these years, so there is not sense belaboring it.

A more interesting aspect to look at would be what the secondary can try to do schematically to help the quarterback make errant throws. Based upon a recent article in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, this seems to be the direction that the Steelers want to go. Here is the relevant quote from the loquacious one, Ryan Clark:

Some of the things that we did with Deshea (Townsend) and William Gay over the years, we weren't able to do last year. Coach Lake took it slow, but now getting William back and having another year with Cortez is going to allow us to do the things that were successful in years before.

So, what is Clark referencing? What are the "things" that we can look forward to from the secondary this year? We of course have no way of knowing for sure, but we can have a lot of fun speculating.


We can safely assume that the Steelers will try to employ more combination coverages this year. As Clark referenced, these things can be difficult for inexperienced players. The best way to try to understand combination coverages would be to start with one of the most widely known, the Virginia Tech Robber coverage.

Robber coverage was run by defenses against teams that ran two back, one tight end sets. The free safety in this defense was the Robber. He reads the tight end. If the tight end blocks, the free safety becomes the 8th defender in the box. If the tight end releases vertically, the free safety covers him man to man.

If the tight end stays in on pass protection, or releases on a shallow route, things now get interesting. The free safety can plan underneath the post route and allow the corner to bracket over the top. Or, the safety can rob a crossing route from the other side of the field. The safety can read the eyes of the quarterback and adjust his drop accordingly.

Robber defense gave a lot of teams fits. The free safety gave a man look one on play and a zone look on another. Moreover, the zone look was constantly changing. Finally, the safety was also blowing up the run. As I am sure you have probably figured out already, Robber became less and less prevalent as teams moved away from two back sets and started spreading defenses out more.

Defenses adjust

Defenses countered this by adjusting their own personnel. Nickel corners are now basically starters. Corners are normally able to play down closer to the line of scrimmage while both safeties play high. This, as much as anything else, has caused the line between a free safety and a strong safety to pretty much disappear. Because of the predominance of one back formations, the safeties now play high. It is not about getting the 8th defender in the box anymore, it's about getting the 6th defender in there.

With more secondary personnel on the field, more combination coverages could now be deployed. With Ike Taylor, the Steelers normally have the luxury of rolling the coverage away from him and allowing him to play bump and run against his man. What Ike lacks in ball skills, he more than makes up for with his press bail technique. Ike actually plays the exact same technique that Darelle Revis does. He plays up on the receiver to take away any short stuff, gets a slight jam in order to disrupts the receivers' release, and then bails in order to stay on top of the receiver and not give up a big play.

With the secondary rotated away from Ike, the Steelers can now get creative.

How many times have we seen Troy Polamalu at the line of scrimmage and then bail when the ball is snapped? Oftentimes, Polamalu bails to the flat and allows the corner to take the deep half. Clark then moves from his middle of the field position to cover the over half. The Steelers thus go from a cover 3 look (one defender in the middle of the field) to a cover 2 look (two defenders high).

Where Polamalu gets his much talked about flexibility is that the Steelers give him freedom from where to start. Polamalu can start out lined up next to Lawrence Timmons and then drop. Or, he can line up high and then fly down into the flats. This causes offenses fits.

Corners can also get involved by changing their leverage on the receiver. If a corner knows that he has help deep, he can play inside leverage and make the quarterback throw the ball long and wide (low percentage pass). The corner can also play outside leverage. When the corner plays outside leverage, he can play more over top the receiver and essentially become the deep defender. This then allows someone like Polamalu to come flying down into the flat (as I just described) and make a play on the short route. Polamalu did exactly this a couple of years ago in the opener against Atlanta when he picked off Matt Ryan's 50th attempt to throw the out to Roddy White.

Experience helps

One of my favorite football sayings actually comes from boxing. Everyone has a gameplan until they get hit. Same concept applies to football. A lot of the stuff that the Steelers do is done pre snap. It is dictated by personnel, formation, field position, down and distance, pre snap motion, etc.

Therefore, communication and experience are vital. You can have the greatest scheme in the world, but it comes down to what the players can execute. Experience helps the players process the information quicker and make the calls as needed.

Hopefully, the Steelers can do more with who they have this year and as a result produce more big plays in the secondary.