Monday, May 26, 2014

The Chaos Defense & Joey Porter's Pit Bulls

No. 8, by Jackson Pollock
In recent years, we've heard occasional but too frequent comments from opposing players summarily dismissing the Steelers' defense by saying things like, "It's really no problem. They've played the same defensive scheme for years." ...or, "We run the same defense, so we're used to seeing it in practice."

Approximately half the teams in the NFL now play some variation of the 3-4 defense, so offensive coordinators and quarterbacks across the NFL are used to seeing it. Steelers' defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has usually been able to apply his own special sauce to the scheme, but there's only so much you can do, to a point.

That point has come long past due. The game has changed. It's become faster, more up-tempo, and it involves more involvement of tall, fast tight ends like Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Vernon Davis, and Tyler Eiffert. The emphasis is on speed and movement. Mobile quarterbacks and multiple receivers open up the game laterally, while vertical seam and go routes are more lethal than ever with the big tight ends and tall, fast receivers such as Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Alshon Jefferey, Torrey Smith, Denaryius Thomas, et al.

That's why, last year, the Steelers increasingly had Troy Polamalu playing in the spot formerly occupied by heavier inside linebackers like Vince Williams, Larry Foote and James Farrior. Polamalu's role was to run down lateral plays close to the line of scrimmage and also drop into full-speed deep coverage with the big tight ends and receivers running vertical routes. Let's be honest, though: Polamalu was a mis-fit at linebacker.

Enter Ryan Shazier.

The Chaos Defense
We haven't even had mini-camp yet, but Joey Porter's Pit Bulls are confident asserting that Shazier will start, and so will rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt. If they don't, something drastically wrong will have happened. Add new safety Mike Mitchell to the equation, along with additional playing time from newer players such as Shamarko Thomas, and the Steelers will have more speed and (hopefully) more disruptive impact at all three levels of the defense.

It's become less about whether a team is playing a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, and more about disruption. It's all about covering the over/under (back end and front seven) areas of the field. That's why the Steelers, along with so many other NFL teams, run so many "sub-package" schemes, with six defensive backs, one of whom is always in a traditional second-level (linebacker) role.

The trouble with the Steelers' ability to run sub-package schemes was they didn't have the personnel to do it. They wanted Sean Spence to begin filling that role, but he got hurt in pres-season two years ago. We saw a bit of that late last year with Terrance Garvin, the undrafted rookie from West Virginia. Garvin played fairly well, but all too often we found ourselves screaming at the TV, "Where are the linebackers?"

Orange, by Zivi Aviraz
Cross-pattern, vertical/lateral coverage
Now, we will see a lot more of it with Shazier. If he is what they hope he will be, Shazier will be able to drop into deep zone coverage, and his presence should enable Troy to return to his usual freelance role on the back end.

Mitchell, who is much faster than Ryan Clark was last year,  should be able to help the corners on deep routes, move vertically with the big tight ends and tall wide receivers, and also move up to the line of scrimmage for run support and occasional blitzes.

Hopefully, the addition of Tuitt, Cam Thomas and Daniel McCullers to the defensive line rotation will enable more of a push from the front three on running and passing plays alike. A fourth, fifth or sixth pass rusher could come from any spot in the defense. The ability of players to run vertically and laterally is going to be key to this defense -- as long as they can cover and actually, you know, tackle.

As much as we liked Ryan Clark, he just couldn't run anymore, and that really hurt the defense last year.

Bucky Brooks of the NFL Network offers a nice article explaining how the revamped defense might work this year with the new personnel, and his analysis is sound, reasoned and explained clearly. You can read it here in a piece titled, "Steelers' revamped defense equipped to wreak havoc."

Brooks's article contains a subhead, "The linebackers' collective speed and athleticism will create chaos," and that contains the nugget of what this new defense should be all about.

If it works, we'll call it The Chaos Defense.

And if the newly revitalized linebacking corps plays to the standard of new defensive assistant Joey Porter, well, there will be only one nickname for the linebackers:

"Joey Porter's Pit Bulls." 

All too often last year, we found ourselves screaming, "Where are the linebackers?"  Hopefully, with this newly rebuilt linebacking corps, we won't have to do that anymore.

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