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Inside the matchup: Patriots at Steelers

Posted by Greg A. Bedard  October 29, 2011 07:03 PM

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In an effort to get a little bit more inside the game, Alen Dumonjic, an x's and o's football junkie who blogs for The Score, will give us his insight on the intricacies of the game. Look for his analysis before each game.

BREAKING DOWN THE STEELERS' OFFENSE

The Steelers offense, designed and called by coordinator Bruce Arians, is one of the most interesting schemes in the NFL – despite having its critics.

Arians relies on a few core concepts, but he’s also willing to step away from the commonly seen conservative play calls to throw defenses off. In the past, we’ve seen Arians dial up triple-option (which he would probably run more of if his QB wasn’t paid as much as he is) as well as many vertical throws. Arians isn’t afraid to mix it up.

With that said, Arians’ offense works out of various personnel groupings, which include 11 (1 back, 1 tight end), 12 (1 back, 2 tight ends) and 21 (2 backs, 1 tight end). The personnel groupings can be sometimes tough to identify for teams, especially if they are keying on a specific player. For example, the Steelers like to use H-Back David Johnson both on the line and in the backfield. Even though he presents an extra gap for the defense to account for regardless of his alignment, it can sometimes be tough figure out what kind of play they are going to be running.

The Steelers are well known for their power running game. Usually that’s important if you lack a quality QB. However, the Steelers have one in Ben Roethlisberger. The running game consists of several types of run concepts, but most notably inside and outside zone. They will stick to what works in the running game, and at times, will run the same play consecutively until the defense can stop it, usually an outside zone. This was seen against the New York Jets in the playoff game last year.

The outside zone concept is one that we’ve discussed here before. On this play, the line is zone blocking. If the lineman is covered by a head up or shaded defensive lineman, he will block the man in front of him. If the offensive lineman is uncovered (no defender in front of him) he will help his play-side teammate by combination (“combo”) blocking the defender. Once they have the defensive lineman under control, one of the two linemen will peel off to the second level to get to the LB.

In the mean time, the running back will read the lead block. He will read the helmet of his lead blocker, and that will allow him to decide in which direction he is going to run the ball. If the lead blocker has his helmet outside of the defender, the running back will run outside. If the blockers head is inside, he will run inside of him.

He will also read the outside hip of the OT and determine if he is going to run outside or cut it inside. The goal of this run concept is to get the defense flowing in one direction by the line executing down blocks (directional blocks). By getting the defense to flow toward the sideline, it puts them in a bind while putting the offense in an advantage. The defense will eventually get out of position and will either leave the outside open or leave a cutback lane for the running back. It’s one or the other for the defense, while the ball carrier simply makes his reads and goes where the defense isn’t.

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(credit to fundamentallyfootball.blogspot.com)

But the Steelers are a vertical passing team. They have a lot of pass catchers that can do damage after the catch, as well as guys who can stretch the defense with their speed. The receiver that has the best ability to stretch defenses is WR Mike Wallace. Wallace, who has really done a great job of improving his game, can blow by coverages with his 4.28 speed. He’s a threat at all times, and the Steelers like to use him mainly on “go” routes as well as skinny posts. Both of these routes often come off play action and at any position on the field.

In an effort to get their receivers to top speed as quick as possible, they will use a lot of “bunch” sets as well as “stacked” receivers. The reason for this is because it allows their receivers to get a free release at the line of scrimmage by avoiding the jam and/or re-rout by defensive backs. A couple of passing concepts that they like to go to out of these aforementioned sets are mesh and slant/flat. Mesh is one of the best passing concepts out there, in my opinion, because there are multiple ways to run it and create havoc on defenses.

What this concept does is create a “rub” -- also known as a “pick” -- on defenders by having two pass catchers run matching crossing routes at opposite sides of the formation. By doing this, it puts the defenders in a trailing position in man coverage, thus getting them to run into each other when the two pass catchers cross each other (see: X and Y in the image). If it is zone coverage, the receivers are taught to “sit” in a hole in the zone on each side instead of crossing each other. Pass catchers are taught to sit in a zone once the linebacker crosses his face in attempt to cover a route outside (such as H or F in the diagram).

Air-Raid-Mesh.png
(credit to football-defense.com for the image)

Another man coverage beater is the slant/flat concept. This is a concept that we’ve seen and discussed before, when the Patriots faced the Raiders.

“On the Slant/Flat concept, the outside receiver (#1) runs a slant route while the inside receiver or tight end runs a flat route. This is a good concept against man coverage, particularly against Cover 1 (which the Patriots have feature), as it will draw the outside linebacker or nickel cornerback to the flat route, which frees up the slant route by the outside receiver. The cornerback is in a trail position on the outside receiver and is not able to make a play on the ball if the slant is thrown right, which is in front of the jersey numbers of the receiver. “

outslant_medium-thumb-352x252-52062.png
(Credit: shakinthesouthland.com)

BREAKING DOWN THE STEELERS' DEFENSE:

The Steelers have long been one of the best defenses in the NFL. They have always had great talent, but regardless of who they have had playing for them, they have had success because the one constant has been defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

LeBeau, the master of the zone blitz, does of dissecting the opposition and finding the weaknesses. Despite some struggles early this season, the defense has gotten back on track and is currently ranked in the top half of the league in both run and pass rankings. However, the most important ranking is the points allowed per game, which the Steelers rank third in the NFL by giving up only 17 points per game.

In the front seven, the Steelers will use a plethora of techniques to make up fronts in effort to combat offenses. They will use two and three man fronts while calling both 4-3 and 3-4 rush concepts out of them. In their two-man fronts, they will sometimes go to double 3 techniques, which are two defensive lineman aligned on the outside shoulder of each guard. In their three-man fronts, the “okie” front is the most commonly seen, which is the three down lineman covering the center and tackles.

OKIE-590x211.jpg

The Steelers are, of course, known their blitzes. LeBeau is a master because of the blitzers he doesn’t send. He does an excellent job of creating the illusion of pressure by crowding the line of scrimmage and confusing the protection pickups for the offensive lineman. With so many teams using zone pass protection, this can cause serious issues.

LeBeau’s “safe pressure”, as he called it, was developed off of the Fire Zone blitz.

The Fire Zone blitz is a five-man pressure with three underneath and three deep defenders in coverage. This pressure has the three down lineman long-sticking away from the blitzers, which draws the attention of the pass blockers and frees up the two blitzing linebackers, the MIKE and SAM. Meanwhile, the backside outside linebacker would drop off in coverage underneath.

ScreenShot083.jpg
(credit to brophyfootball.blogspot.com)

Along with their pressures, the Steelers do a good job of mixing in coverages to defend the pass. This week, they have their work cut out for them against the Patriots’ quality passing game, but LeBeau will stick to what has worked for him, which is a mix of one and two high-safety principles. When the Steelers are in a single high safety set, they like to play quite a bit of Cover 3, which is a four under-three deep zone coverage, as well as Man-Free (Cover 1), which is man coverage on all pass catchers with the exception of the safety in the middle of the field in zone coverage.

He will also look to “loaded zone” coverage, which is one of the better coverages out there, in my opinion. The Steelers use this coverage every game and make a living in it. One of the times I was able to get a good shot of it was against the Indianapolis Colts earlier this season.

loaded-zone-vs-trips-steelers-590x265.jpg

The Steelers are in their nickel package. The cornerback at the bottom of the screen defends the flats, while the #2 cornerback on the #2 receiver is a curl defender, and the nickel cornerback on the #3 receiver is the hook defender. On the backside, there’s a flat defender as well as the safety (at top of the screen deep) who drops toward the middle of the field with half field responsibilities.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

  • Patriots TEs vs. Steelers LBs - It seems like every week the Patriots tight ends are something to watch for, but every week, its worthy of mention. This week is no different as they go up against a Steelers LB core that has had issues in man coverage at times.
  • Crossing Routes - Crossing routes against both defenses could be a factor because both offenses utilize them well. As noted earlier, the Steelers will use the Mesh concept in effort to create “rubs” against defenses. The Patriots also do a good job of getting Welker to run shallow crosses.
  • Blitzes - Both teams are likely to try and throw some blitzes at the offense. The Patriots could look to attack the A gaps because of the troubles the Steelers had against the Cardinals last week. Center Maurkice Pouncey had issues identifying his assignment on more than one occasion. The Steelers always bring pressure, so the Patriots better be prepared.
  • Inside and Outside Zone - Both teams utilize these two run concepts. Although the Patriots rely on it less than the Steelers from what I’ve seen, they do go to it when they feel it could be successful, like against the Jets. The Steelers defensive line has had a significant amount of trouble defending the two zone run concepts this season because of their inability to play disciplined down the line of scrimmage.
  • Patriots DBs vs. Steelers WRs - Even though the Patriots have been improving as of late, their secondary still has had past issues that could translate over to any game, such as this one. They will have their hands full as they attempt to slow down Wallace while looking to contain WRs Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders after the catch.
  • Steelers DBs vs. Patriots WRs - The Steelers have an impressive safeties, but their cornerbacks aren’t at the same level. Ike Taylor is the best cornerback on the team, but is sometimes undisciplined. He’s high-cut (long legs), which makes him slow in and out of his breaks at times. Also, William Gay has had issues in the past in coverage and is someone that the Patriots could target, like they did last season. Both cornerbacks can be very aggressive and bite on double moves.

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For more on the Patriots defense, read Alen's blog post at The Score. Follow Alen on Twitter at @DraftableXnOs.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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