Novel Steeler Defense Has Them Asking, ‘Where in Heck Did He Come From?’
It’s no longer enough for football’s most ferocious team to produce a rap video.
This year’s Pittsburgh Steelers want a “raptor” video.
“Our defense is like those raptors in that Jurassic Park movie,” said linebacker Greg Lloyd, referring to the fierce dinosaurs. “They worked in pairs. You set your sights on one of them . . . and the other one attacks you from the other side.”
It’s no longer enough for this season’s most ferocious defense to sack quarterbacks a league-leading 55 times, to knock them out of the game (Jim Kelly), the starting lineup (Jim Harbaugh) and off the active roster (Cody Carlson).
They want to knock them out of their minds.
“I don’t care who the quarterback is,” Lloyd said. “We knock him down enough, we pressure him enough . . . we’re going to put something in the back of his head.”
“He wonders what hit him,” Lloyd said.
When the Cleveland Browns’ offense steps onto the Three Rivers Stadium field for their second-round playoff game Saturday against the Steelers’ second-ranked defense, they had better be ready to handle Lloyd’s rush.
No, wait, here comes Kevin Greene from the other side.
Oops, back up, it’s none of those guys. That black jersey is really inside linebacker Chad Brown coming up the middle and. . . .
No! No! No! The blitzer is really Rod Woodson from the corner and . . . oh, no!
When asked about the league’s novel defense, a leading dinosaur expert and football fan says part of the raptor analogy is false.
But only part of it.
“In reality, the velociraptor--that fast bird they were portraying in the movie--was only four feet tall and six feet long,” said Wade Miller, professor of paleontology at Brigham Young University. “And we have no evidence that they worked in pairs. That was something just done for the movie.”
However, Miller continued: “I’ve seen a few Steeler games on TV, and the analogy works in one sense. The velociraptor was quick. And vicious. And a killer.”
Sounds just like the unit that gave up only 16 touchdowns in its 15 games that mattered. Sounds just like the unit that held the Philadelphia Eagles to 105 total yards. And held the Miami Dolphins to 37 yards rushing. And sacked the Buffalo Bills seven times.
Sounds like the unit that blitzed the Dolphins an amazing 39 times in 68 offensive plays, leaving Dan Marino cursing as he walked out of Three Rivers earlier this season after losing an overtime thriller in a possible preview of the AFC championship game.
Marino said he knew the Steelers were coming. What he didn’t know was when, how many and from where.
He wondered, when was the last time he had to think about from where?
After being sacked 10 times in his 10 previous games, he was sacked four times one afternoon.
“Their defense is playing as well as any in the league,” he conceded. “I knew they were going to blitz, and we handled it sometimes. And sometimes we didn’t.”
Using a scheme that takes advantage of the most athletic defenders in the game, the Steelers have not only the hottest defense, but the most unusual.
--The “Are those linebackers or power forwards?” factor
Most teams, including the Dallas Cowboys and their top-ranked defense, use four defensive linemen and three linebackers.
The Steelers use three linemen and four linebackers, commonly known as a 3-4.
The run support they lose without a 300-pounder in the middle is compensated for by the terror they bring from everywhere else.
Instead of acquiring athletes to fit a scheme, the Steelers acquired the best athletes they could find, then rewrote their scheme.
Among other things, this has helped them lead the NFL with a plus-14 turnover ratio.
“We have four very athletic guys at linebacker,” said Steeler defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who has used his success to land a head coaching job with the Carolina Panthers for next season. “It all starts there. All we’re doing is building off our strengths.”
George Henshaw, offensive coordinator for the New York Giants, put it another way: “Nobody in the league has two players at any position like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene.”
Outside linebackers Lloyd and Greene weigh more than 225 pounds each but are as quick as wide receivers.
They blitz quarterbacks, they cover receivers, they charge running backs.
Not only did they lead the team in sacks, they accounted for an interception and three passes defended against, and Lloyd was third on the team in overall tackles.
“Sometimes you might catch us on some of the stuff we do,” Lloyd said. “But sometimes, you won’t.”
Inside linebackers Brown and Levon Kirkland were outside linebackers in college, so they can also rush and cover, besides stopping the run.
They have even perfected a sort of half blitz. If the quarterback steps up in the pocket to avoid a blitzing linebacker or cornerback, often Brown or Kirkland is waiting for him.
Former Steeler linebacker Jack Ham said: “The thing that amazes me the most is that their linebackers come to the line and show blitz, then all of a sudden they drop off and cover receivers as well as anybody.
“And while they are doing that, the blitz comes from. . . . “
Which brings us to our next point.
--The “Where in the heck did he come from?” factor
“The way they get to you is to fool your protection,” said Kevin Gilbride, former offensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers. “You’ve got offensive linemen moving over to block one guy, and another guy comes rushing past their back. They bluff a lot, disguise a lot, come in and then back out a lot.”
The real burden of beating this defense, Gilbride added, rests not with the quarterback, but the guards and tackles.
“If your guys aren’t real sharp and can’t recognize things real quick, your quarterback is in trouble,” he said. “If the quarterback is confused, it’s from getting hit on his back.”
In a season filled with splendid Steeler defensive statistics, the gem might be this: Every starter but free safety Darren Perry has a sack. And Perry plays so far off the ball, he might as well be in Ohio.
Cornerback Deon Figures has a sack. Strong safety Carnell Lake has a sack. Woodson has three.
“Because they have such great athletes, they can bring all sorts of different players, especially on third down,” Henshaw said. “That is when they are really effective. Because if they bring the cornerbacks, the safeties can cover deep. And if they bring a couple of linebackers, the other two can drop back and cover.”
Henshaw paused. In his voice was a touch of wonder as he continued: “Even their defensive linemen can cover receivers,” he said. “I’ve seen it.”
Joel Steed, Ray Seals and Brentson Buckner have not one interception or pass defense among them. But they have yet to be burned for a touchdown.
Which perhaps proves that when tight ends are covered by 300-pounders, tight ends tend to disappear.
Which brings us to our next point.
--The “Surely somebody has to be open . . . doesn’t he?” factor.
When most teams blitz, their defensive backs cover receivers one on one.
The quarterback knows this, and can often avoid a sack by making a quick throw to a certain spot because he knows that his guy will be there with an advantageous matchup.
Not against the Steelers.
“We aren’t talking about a Buddy Ryan defense here,” Henshaw said. “Some people get the impression that this is a wild-eyed bunch of rushers who leave themselves open to the big play. Not this team.”
Simply, everybody in this defense is smart enough and good enough to cover everybody on the other team.
The Steelers are the only group in the league that can consistently pull off a blitz while playing a safe zone coverage.
“Quarterbacks will see guys coming at him, he will think his receiver is being covered by one cornerback, he’ll throw the ball, still thinking it is man coverage,” Ham said. “Then from out of nowhere, a linebacker will come over and pick off the pass. And the quarterback will think, ‘Where did he come from?’ ”
Mostly from the mind of Capers, a former college defensive back who learned under Jim Mora while coaching for him during eight seasons with the New Orleans Saints and the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars of the USFL.
Capers, in his third year as Steeler defensive coordinator, spent 15 minutes before each workout at training camp positioning his defenders on the field and leading them through their steps.
There was no football. No helmets. Just a bunch of big men carefully walking around while a smaller, balding one hollered instructions.
This is no mad scientist. This is a choreographer.
“This is a defense where every little thing matters,” Capers said. “It’s not as complicated as it sounds. It’s putting the right guys in the right places and letting them do what they do best.”
Sounds so easy. Looks so devastating.
Watching a third-and-long play with the Steeler defense on the field, there is a temptation to hide your eyes. But greater is the risk that you will miss something spectacular.
Maybe Greg Lloyd was right: Maybe it is like one of those dinosaur movies.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
A 3-4 Punch
The Pittsburgh Steeler defense was the best in the AFC, giving up an average of 270.5 yards per game. The Steelers play a now seldom-used 3-4 defense and often blitz outside linebackers Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd. The key to the defense, which led the NFL in sacks with 55, is the athleticism of the inside linebackers and the defensive backs, who provide double coverage of receivers even during a blitz. (graphic demonstrating positions)
No. Pos. Starting defense 97 DE Ray Seals 93 NT Joel Steed 96 DE Brentson Buckner 95 LB Greg Lloyd 94 LB Chad Brown 99 LB Levon Kirkland 91 LB Kevin Greene 21 CB Deon Figures 39 S Darren Perry 37 S Carnell Lake 26 CB Rod Woodson