After watching the Steelers' top-ranked defense suffocate a handful of offenses this season, scouts can't stop raving about the team's linebackers. James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons spearhead a unit that allows only 69.7 yards a game on the ground, ranks first in passing defense (158.7 yards a game) as well as sacks (25) heading into Sunday's showdown with the defending Super Bowl champion Giants.
Traditionally, linebackers are viewed as the backbone of the 3-4, and the Steelers' unit exemplifies that theory. It has accounted for 23 of the team's 25 sacks, and each linebacker has at least 24 tackles (Farrior is the team leader with 39). Moreover, Harrison and Woodley are tied for second in the league in sacks (8 each) and Harrison's three forced fumbles are the most in the league.
"The man behind the curtain is brilliant," said an AFC scout of Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "He has created a plug and play system that allows his players to thrive on the field."
Added an NFC personnel director, "They have a great scheme that has been in place for years, so the players find comfort in the consistency of the game plan."
LeBeau, who has spent seven seasons as the team's defensive coordinator, is often credited with coming up with the modern zone blitz scheme, and he continues to refine his system. Using a variety of five- and six-man pressures from an odd front, the Steelers put enormous pressure on the opponent's protection scheme. With four linebackers available to blitz, Pittsburgh makes it tough for offenses to consistently identify which rushers are attacking prior to the snap. Plus, the increased use of overload pressures (four men attacking from one side) creates a favorable matchup for one of the Steeler's talented rushers. The team relentlessly attacks that mismatch throughout the game.
"Their scheme is difficult to prepare for because of the flexibility of the 3-4," said an NFC personnel director. "You have a tough time figuring out which guy is coming, so you have a tendency to play passive because you're thinking too much. Also, they are pretty creative with how they attack your blocking scheme. They design their blitz to specifically attack your weakness in protection, and repeatedly dial it up until you make a change."
While the scheme is outstanding, the Steelers have also done an outstanding job identifying players who are perfectly suited for it. They have a long tradition of converting undersized college defensive ends into outside linebackers. That gives them a huge advantage when creating pressure off the edge because their linebackers are typically bigger than the average linebacker. And they craft their scheme to create plenty of opportunities for the linebackers to work against smaller running backs and tight ends in pass protection.
The trick has worked to perfection this season as Woodley and Harrison have feasted off the mismatches on the way to making a host of game-changing plays off the edge. In addition, their presence on the edges has freed up the inside linebackers to aggressively attack gaps inside. Foote and Farrior have thrived against the run, while Timmons has been used as an inside linebacker on passing downs to give the team an additional pass rusher in their blitz package. The former first rounder has excelled as the extra rusher, and his three sacks have forced offenses to pay attention to yet another linebacker in pass protection.
LeBeau may created the zone blitz to take advantage of an exceptional set of linebackers in the '90's, but this year's version of "Blitz-burgh" may turn out to be the best crew to play in the scheme.
What's wrong with the Cowboys' defense? That's what some observers are wondering after watching Dallas give up over 30 points in back-to-back losses to the Cards and Rams. The team's star-studded defense looked underwhelming in both performances, its surprising inability to stop the opposition the primary reason for the two-game losing streak.
But for a lot of NFL scouts, the results aren't that surprising at all. "They have major issues in the back end," said an NFC personnel director. "[Terrance Newman] has been hurt, but they have been plagued by Anthony Henry's decline in play and the failed 'Pac-Man' experiment. Throw in (Roy) Williams' injuries and struggles in coverage, it's not surprising to see them struggle defensively."
Though the defense ranks 11th in total yards allowed and 16th in pass defense, its penchant for allowing big plays is crippling. The Cowboys have allowed 12 "explosive" plays (passes over 20 yards and runs over 10 yards) the past two weeks.
"They are not playing well right now," said an NFC personnel director. "All of the potential issues they had entering the season have been exposed. Their secondary is not playing well, and they're not getting the consistent pressure up front to protect those guys. When that doesn't happen, it results in big plays."
Though Newman has only suited up for three games due to an abdominal injury, the Cowboys believed that they had the depth to handle any injury in secondary. PacMan Jones was acquired to give the team another viable starter, and the draft brought two prospects (Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick) to plug in as sub-defenders in the nickel and dime packages.
However, those moves didn't pay dividends as Jones struggled in his return, and eventually landed on the suspended list for yet another off-field incident. Jenkins and Scandrick have displayed the typical inconsistency that is associated with playing rookies, and their questionable cover skills have limited the team's ability to use man coverage. Thus, maligned defensive coordinator Brian Stewart has been handcuffed when attempting to craft a game plan that takes advantage of the team's personnel.
While Stewart has reportedly been stripped of his play calling duties, he should only be held partially responsible for the team's defensive woes. The 3-4 that Stewart is using is essentially the same defense that he and Wade Phillips used with the Chargers, and the head coach ultimately has veto power on any call that the coordinator makes during the course of the game.
Furthermore, the cover scheme that is used with Phillips' blitz tactics is not a great match for the Cowboys personnel. Phillips' scheme requires his corners to play off their assigned receivers from about eight yards as part of a "quarters" or "quarter/half-field" coverage. (Quarters is four-deep coverage with a combination of man and zone principles. Quarters/half-field coverage uses quarters' principles on the strong-side and two-deep principles on the weak side)
The Cowboys' young, athletic corners (Jones, Jenkins and Scandrick) are better suited to play "press-man" coverage while Henry needs to play in a zone scheme to mask his deteriorating cover skills. Thus, the Cowboys face a dilemma when deciding how to attack offenses.
"There is not a great match in terms of personnel and scheme," said an NFC personnel director. "Their corners are fast and athletic, so they should be more aggressive with their man schemes. But they obviously don't trust their guys, so they are playing conservative and hoping that plays will fall into their laps."
Phillips was hired as the Cowboys' head coach because of his ability to build dominant defense, but he will need to quickly revamp the team's secondary to retain his status as the 'Boys leader.
The 49ers' decision to name Mike Singletary interim head coach is the latest example of a guy taking over without previous experience as a coordinator. Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker, has spent the past six seasons as a position coach for the Ravens and 49ers, but has never had the responsibility of running the defense from a leadership standpoint. Is he up for the challenge?
"The head coach is not as responsible for the X's and O's of the game as many would think," said an NFC personnel director. "In today's game, he is more of a motivator and communicator. He must deal with so many things that aren't directly related to the game that it could be an asset if he is more of a people person."
Singletary has been described in that manner, and his peers believe that his strongest asset is his ability to inspire those around him.
"He is a great motivational speaker," said an NFL coach who worked with Singletary in Baltimore."He relates to players and gets them to buy into what he is teaching."
But how will he related to his assistants? While motivating and inspiring players is an essential part of the job job, the successful coaches also understand how oversee a game and manage the four to five critical situations that ultimately decide every contest.
"That will be his biggest challenge," said the NFL coach. "He has to successfully manage his coordinators and how they handle ebbs and flows of the game. If he is able to do that, he will be extremely successful as their head man."
Singletary's mentor (Mike Ditka) made the unlikely transformation from Cowboys assistant to Bears' head man and won a Super Bowl title. The 49ers and their fans can only hope Singletary engineers a similar makeover as the team's new head coach.