(Follow me on Twitter @KTSmithFFSN and check out my NFL show “The Call Sheet” on Fans First Sports Network wherever you get your podcasts.)
Many of you reading this article came of age as Steelers fans during the “Blitzburgh” era. Those were fun times in the mid-1990s, as Pittsburgh re-established itself as a perennial AFC contender on the strength of a ferocious defense. Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau and Jim Haslett, who coordinated the unit at various times between 1992-1999, shared a similar vision for how the Steelers would respond to the growing trend that saw NFL offenses spreading the field and passing the football. They would blitz the daylights out of them and beat their quarterbacks into submission.
Times have changed, of course. The Steelers don’t blitz like they did in the 90s, and for good reason. The rules are far different from back then. You can barely touch a quarterback now, much less beat one into submission. Secondary rules have changed, too, making it harder to play the aggressive coverages that often accompanied the blitz. And offenses emphasize the short passing game, prioritizing getting the ball out quickly before pass rushers can get home. Blitzing can be a fool’s errand against the wrong quarterback or offensive coordinator, as offenses improve at both preparing for and executing against pressure.
Even so, the Steelers remain dedicated to it. Last season, Pittsburgh blitzed on 31.5% of their opponent's snaps, which was the 6th highest frequency in the league. In 2021, their blitz percentage fell to 27%, which was 13th highest. But it was 40.3% in 2020 (3rd) and 36.9% in 2019 (7th). Pittsburgh also led or tied for the league lead in sacks every season from 2017-2021 before falling to 14th last year (a likely product of the injury to T.J. Watt that caused him to miss the better part of eight games). In short, the Steelers remain among the best pressure teams in the league, and also one of the most willing to use the blitz to create it.
Here are three designs Pittsburgh used in 2022 that demonstrate how the blitz remains alive and well in Pittsburgh.
The “House” blitz
Let’s start with a crowd-pleaser. How many times have you been at a game, or been watching with friends on TV, when someone has shouted, “Bring the house!” I don’t believe Teryl Austin listens to the howls of those in the crowd working on their seventh IC Light. But he’s not averse to this type of pressure. The Steelers did it on several occasions last season, most notably in the opener at Cincinnati, where it produced this sack of Joe Burrow, leading to a fumble and recovery by Cam Heyward:
The design here is not complicated. Cincinnati has seven blockers in protection and the Steelers bring eight rushers. With the hot reads that offenses build into their route concepts, being +1 in the pass rush isn’t enough on its own to create pressure. The key is to get that extra rusher to the quarterback as fast as possible. Pittsburgh does this by opening the A-gap between the center and right guard, allowing linebacker Devin Bush (55) to come through cleanly. Bush’s pressure, combined with Alex Highsmith winning cleanly against Cincinnati’s left tackle, gets to Burrow before he can throw.
Two other factors contribute to the effectiveness of this blitz. Cincinnati’s focus on Watt causes them to slide the right side of the line in his direction. By sliding towards Watt, the Bengals put their center in a bind when Pittsburgh slants Heyward at him. The center has to block either Heyward or Bush; he can’t block both. The running back doesn’t recognize the A-gap overload, so he winds up chipping a defender (safety Terrell Edmunds, who is blitzing the B-gap) who is already blocked. If Cincinnati had time to draw up an ideal protection, they would have used a full slide to the right, with the back blocking the opposite edge. But the game doesn’t afford that luxury, and this stunt puts pressure on the Bengals to get into the perfect protection in real time.
The other element in play here is the coverage. The Steelers bank on the fact that their eight blitzers will require Cincinnati to leave seven in protection, meaning they can only release three receivers. As you can see below, Pittsburgh locks those players down man-to-man. Cincinnati helps by not recognizing the blitz and failing to check to something that hits more quickly. They run three verticals instead, which take more time to develop than Burrow is given. The combination of good design by Pittsburgh and poor blitz recognition by Cincinnati makes this a great play for the Steelers.
The Long Stick
One of the more popular line stunts in football is the “long stick,” which sends an edge player lined up as a 5 or even 9-tech all the way down to the A-gap between the guard and center. This stunt is usually combined with some sort of fire-zone blitz where secondary players are scrambling the coverage. The idea is to disrupt both the protection scheme and coverage read to create a path to the quarterback while making him hold the ball long enough for the rushers to get there.
Below, we see the Steelers running a version of the long stick out of a Brian Flores-inspired “mug” look. This is something Flores used frequently in Miami, with six, seven or even eight defenders lined up along the ball in a “guess who’s coming” configuration:
This stunt is all about deception. So let’s try something. You play quarterback here. Give yourself about three seconds to study the pre-snap look in the photo. That’s about the amount of time a QB has at the line to decipher the intentions of the defense. Then decide who’s coming, who’s falling into coverage, whether you need to change the protection to block the stunt and where you should go with the football.
It’s tough to tell. There are six at the line, and the secondary appears to be playing zone. The coverage is as much a key here as the blitz. If Matt Ryan knows what coverage to expect, he can get the ball out quickly. If he doesn’t, and he has to hold it, that’s a win for the Steelers.
Let’s see what happens:
Give yourself two points if you predicted it would be Highsmith (56) executing the long stick. Give yourself two more if you diagnosed the edge blitz from Edmunds (34). Take another two if you predicted Bush would fall out of the A-gap into coverage. And give yourself four points if you knew it would be bracket coverage to the single side of Indianapolis’s formation with a match-up zone to the trips:
That’s a whopping ten points if you got everything right. Please contact Jeff Hartman to collect your points. I’m not authorized to award them.
The Colts actually did a nice job picking up the stunt. They traded off effectively on Highsmith and Heyward, and the running back, although he was a hair late, came over in time to block Edmunds. It was the coverage, though, that confounded Ryan. He wanted the crossers on this Drive concept, either the shallow cross or the dig behind it. But with Bush falling into coverage and Minkah Fitzpatrick matching the dig by the #3 receiver, neither was open. Ryan then got happy feet, danced around the pocket a bit and was eventually engulfed by Edmunds.
This was a nice design by the Steelers, with the coverage allowing the blitz to get home in the end.
The Long (Long, Long, Long) Stick
The Steelers didn’t just run the long stick stunt. They put a twist on it that turned it into something I’ve never seen before. Frankly, I have no idea what to call it. For now, I’m calling it the long (long, long, long) stick, which is a truly stupid name but will make more sense once we break it down.
On the play below, Pittsburgh runs a fire-zone pressure where Edmunds comes off the edge to the left of the frame. Meanwhile, Watt, who is aligned as the edge to the right, falls back into coverage. With no blitzer coming outside of Watt, it’s fair to wonder who is responsible for containment to that side of the formation.
The answer? Alex Highsmith:
You may notice that Highsmith is lined up pre-snap on the opposite side of the line. How can Highsmith line up as the edge rusher to the left and be responsible for containment to the right? In the history of loop stunts, or long sticks, or whatever you choose to call them, I’ve never seen a team try anything like this. Highsmith comes all the way across the formation and winds up outside of Cincinnati’s right tackle. For those of you counting at home, he loops across five gaps to serve as contain in case Joe Burrow tries to bail out to his right.
Highsmith’s movement is interesting, but the stunt really works for two reasons. One, by falling back into coverage, Watt takes away Burrow’s hot throw to the tight end. Also, the drop by Cam Sutton (20) into a Tampa-2 look eliminates potential crossers. There’s simply no one open. With both edges contained, Burrow has no option but to tuck the ball and run it up the gut, where he’s dropped for a short gain.
The Steelers went to this stunt again against Tampa Bay. This time, Highsmith fell off into coverage from the right side of the defense while Malik Reed (50) came all the way from the left edge to serve as contain on the other side. Robert Spillane took Sutton’s role as the seam-runner. It was a well-executed pressure that, with bodies scrambling in every direction, should have confounded Tom Brady the way it did Joe Burrow:
Tom Brady is Tom Brady though. The Steelers got the better of their long-time nemesis last season, but on this play, the 45-year-old showed he could still beat the blitz with the best of them. Brady recognized the wide drop of the safeties as Tampa-2, then fit a perfectly thrown ball into a small window up the seam opposite of Spillane’s drop. Still, it took precise execution by the best quarterback to ever play the game to beat this particular blitz, which is one of the most creatively designed pressures I’ve seen the Steelers employ.
Pittsburgh has added length in their secondary this off-season by drafting corners Joey Porter Jr. and Cory Trice, both of whom should be useful in man schemes that pair well with pressure. They’ve added versatility with veteran Patrick Peterson and a good box safety in Keanu Neal, who should fill the role of the departed Edmunds capably. They retain a diverse safety set in Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee, and one of the best edge-rushing duos in football in Watt and Highsmith. All of this suggests we should see more creative blitzes and coverage disguises next season in an effort to confound opposing quarterbacks.
Somewhere, Coach LeBeau is smiling...