Thursday, February 03, 2011

How the Steelers and Packers Create Chaos

After writing about why Dallas' 3-4 has not resembled the Super Bowl 3-4's yesterday , I wanted to show you some video today that will show why bringing DBs can change everything and cause confusion.

As great as the "Steel Curtain" was in the 1970's under Bud Carson, I am far more fascinated with the way Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers designed the Steelers' defense under Bill Cowher back in 1992-1994, helping to perfect the evolution of the zone blitz. That same concept and scheme is pretty much what the Steelers use today to have the finest defense in the NFL.

What makes the zone blitz so effective in the 3-4 is that you are getting chaotic pressure in the backfield without exposing giant areas of uncovered real estate behind you. In effect, you are still only bringing 4 or 5 players on your pass rush, so you still have 6 or 7 players playing zone behind the play to defend the receivers and the hot routes.

This changed the game. And Dick LeBeau, who is in the Hall of Fame for a number of reasons, is credited with being as big a genius as anyone on the topic. And the guy across the field, Green Bay DC Dom Capers, is his friend and fellow designer.

How great is this match-up?

Let's start with the Steelers and in my next post I will look at what Green Bay likes to do. All of this falls under the heading of "what Dallas has been doing with their 3-4 in the Wade Phillips era was just too vanilla".

First, let's look at the game that put the AFC Championship Game nearly on ice before halftime.

We must start with the simple premise that when you are behind 17-0, there is only 1:23 to go in the half, you are at your own 26 yard line, and it is 3rd Down and 17 yards to go, you should probably not do anything more risky than a FB dive or a simple draw and get to the locker room. For reasons that nobody I am sure can quite understand, the Jets decide to play with fire in a rocking stadium with a defense that smells blood.

With all of that said, if you are going to ask Mark Sanchez to try to get your 17 yards on a risky throw, Dick LeBeau is going to punish you with what Pittsburgh does best.

The Jets line up 2x2 with their Wide outs, hoping to spread Pittsburgh out. Trouble is, the Steelers show as many as 8 different guys could consider rushing the QB on this play. And Sanchez has no idea which 4, 5, or even 6 might be coming. Watch the top of the screen as the video shows the outside corner 24-Taylor moves down to the slot receiver. The slot receiver sees this and adjusts - showing his OL that the corner who was on the slot 22-Gay is now an obvious blitzer, and he has been replaced by the outside corner (who was replaced on the outside by the "up top" safety 43-Polaumalu.

The Jets adjust - thinking they understand what is happening. They are sure that 22 is blitzing and 24 is covering the slot. They have done their homework on the Steelers and they are prepared. But, actually, they are not. Because LeBeau knew what the Jets were going to do. And he saved this special scheme to that he could counter their counter.

Yes, 22-Gay is blitzing. And the RB has him picked up. But, what the Jets never imagined happening - even though their own defense has devised such evil plans - is that 24-Taylor, who started the play on the outside receiver along the sideline is also blitzing. And nobody could have seen that. Also, 51-Farrior is rushing to the flat to cover the slot receiver, so Sanchez thought he had a hot receiver, but needing 17, he waited a split second for the play to develop. A second he didn't have.

Taylor decks Sanchez. Sanchez fumbles. Gay recovers. 24-0. And a horrible situation for the Jets becomes even worse.

Next, I want to refer back to the awesome book by Tim Layden that any football nut should check out - Blood, Sweat and Chalk. This week, because Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau are the fathers of the zone blitz, he put the zone blitz chapter online for everyone to enjoy here .

The Chapter should be read in full, but here he breaks down the pivotal play of Super Bowl 43:

The situation: With just over two minutes remaining in the first half of Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, with the favored Steelers leading the Arizona Cardinals 10-7, Cards linebacker Karlos Dansby intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass and returned it to the Steelers' 34. In seven plays Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner moved the Cards to a first-and-goal at the Steelers' one-yard line with 18 seconds to play. It seemed a virtual certainty that the Cardinals would go into the halftime dressing room with a lead.

On first down the Cardinals lined up with Pro Bowl receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin (who between them had caught passes for 42 touchdowns over the 2007 and '08 regular seasons), both to the left side of the formation, both split, with Boldin outside Fitzgerald. The Steelers had six men on the line of scrimmage -- four standing and only two with a hand on the ground; but just before the snap three other defenders moved up close, into gaps, as if preparing for an all-out blitz. At the snap, from a stand-up right defensive end position, Harrison took a step forward.

In fact, Harrison was baiting Warner, giving the impression that he was blitzing, when he was actually planning to drop off into the middle of the field in a form of zone pass defense. The tactic is called a "zone blitz," a catchall phrase for any defense that blitzes from one area while dropping players -- linemen, linebackers or defensive backs -- into zone coverage in another area. These defenses are also called "zone dogs" (as in "red dogs," an old school name for blitzes) or "fire zones."

Warner, of course, knew all about them, and he knew that the Steelers and 71-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau loved them. "Pittsburgh lives off zone dogs," Warner had said in the spring before that season. "You see zone dogs everywhere, but Pittsburgh is so athletic and so skilled, they've really made it a part of their package. Against them, you're going to see it four, six, eight times a game. Against a lot of other teams, you might see it once."

In nearly 30 minutes of the Super Bowl the Steelers had not yet used a zone blitz. Warner took the snap, and the Steelers brought five rushers, not nine. But Warner was already convinced that he was going to be pressured heavily -- he expected Harrison to rush -- and needed to unload quickly. To Warner's left, Fitzgerald slipped outside and set a pick on Steelers corner Deshea Townsend, allowing Boldin to cut inside, where he looked momentarily free at the goal line. "Your instinct in those situations is to throw hot," Warner had said earlier, meaning to throw quickly to a receiver in an area theoretically vacated by a blitzer. Following this instinct, Warner looked for Boldin running into the area from which Harrison had blitzed.

Except Harrison hadn't blitzed. He had turned his hips to the outside and rotated out of the box and into the curl-slant area. "I never saw him," Warner would say after the game. He delivered the ball toward Boldin, but instead it hit Harrison directly in the hands, and 15 painful seconds later, the Steelers had a 16-7 lead and Harrison had made what LeBeau later called "the greatest play in Super Bowl history." (The Steelers would need another great play -- a toe-tapping catch by Santonio Holmes in the back corner of the end zone with just 35 seconds to play in the game -- to secure a 27-23 victory and their record sixth Super Bowl championship.)

Read more:

Now, check out the play. Notice the pre-snap chaos, for Kurt Warner to sort through -

Back to the book:

In '92, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bill Cowher was brought to Pittsburgh as head coach, and Cowher hired Capers as his defensive coordinator and then brought in none other than Dick LeBeau to coach his secondary, after LeBeau had been ousted in Cincinnati with head coach Wyche.

The two Buckeyes, Capers and LeBeau, put their heads and their experience together. "Dick had done more zone blitzing than I had," recalls Capers. "But I had done some too. We started talking, and it was really pretty exciting."

Less exciting was the Steelers' personnel. Pittsburgh had gone 7-9 the previous year. "Our pass rushers were not nearly as good as what we had in New Orleans," says Capers. "Three quarters of the way through that first season, we only had 19 sacks. We just weren't getting to the quarterback enough. It reached the point, late in that season, where Dick and I just said to each other, 'We've got to do something X's and O's-wise because our front seven guys are just not beating people one-on-one.'

"If you looked at our secondary," Capers continues, "we had some pretty good guys back there -- Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake. So in the latter part of the season we started mixing in some zone pressures and getting more pressure on the quarterback. The secondary responded well, and the guys up front loved it because it was aggressive." The Steelers improved so significantly down the stretch that year, en route to an 11--5 record, that they finished No. 2 in the league in scoring defense.

In the offseason Capers and LeBeau committed totally to the zone blitz, hence giving birth to the nickname Blitz-burgh Steelers. The Steelers also added outside linebacker Kevin Greene and inside linebacker Chad Brown, upgrading their front seven.

Says Capers, "That second year we ended up doing a lot of zone pressuring. We started doing things like having a lineman step forward to occupy a blocker and then dropping back into coverage. And we found that offenses started to play us differently. Their linemen couldn't be as aggressive because they just didn't know if our guys were coming. So much of football is mental, and if you can make an offensive line passive, that's half the battle. Then if you can confuse them by dropping guys out into pass coverage when they think they're going to pass-rush, that's another big part of it."

That passage put one more play on my mind. It was the play that helped insure that Capers and the Packers would be at the Super Bowl.

Again, these are all of the concepts of what the two men installed in Pittsburgh almost 2 decades ago.

The big story after the BJ Raji Interception was that they used a blitz for the very first time of the '10 season :

“It was the first time we’ve made the call this year,” Capers said afterward.

Said Bishop: “It was a rare call. When they sent it in, I kind of went, ‘Hmmmmmmmm.’ ”

The call, “Right Cat,” came with the Packers up 14-7 with 6:12 remaining and the Bears facing a third-and-5 from their 15-yard-line. It called for Shields, the right cornerback, to blitz while Raji, the monstrous (6-foot-2, 337 pounds) nose tackle Thompson drafted in the first round two years ago to serve as the linchpin of Capers’ 3-4 scheme, steps down into the A-gap (between guard and center) to try to draw a block, then suddenly pops back into coverage.

Raji, Capers estimated, had only been utilized in coverage about five times this season, which would explain Hanie’s surprise as he flipped a short pass for halfback Matt Forte(notes) that ended up in the zone-traversing nose tackle’s massive mitts. As Raji rumbled 18 yards for the score, he set the concept of ball security back several decades, holding the ball in his outstretched right hand as Hanie swooped across and took a swipe near the goal line.

All 3 plays had historic results and all 3 plays were more the product of a creative scheme than an extraordinary personal performance. Ike Taylor and Sam Shields blitzed free and were untouched. BJ Raji and James Harrison had the ball thrown right to them because they were deployed into a drop area by their Defensive Coordinator. They still had to make the catch, but this si where Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau show they are worth every penny. And why creativity matters in the schemes and ideas carried out by a defense.

No comments: