Stopping Peyton Manning requires a defense to create plenty of pressure, while still disguising its intent. Fortunately for the Pittsburgh Steelers, that's what they do best, after years operating a zone blitz scheme.
However, this it's not merely a case of sending numerous overload blitzes from both sides at Manning. That's a recipe for disaster, despite the quick-thinking quarterback's lengthy absence from the game.
The key to containing Manning is controlling the middle, both in coverage and with the pass rush. In coverage, disguise and variety will be essential for the Steelers defense. Yet that subterfuge has to be combined with intense pressure through the middle.
Creating pressure along the interior and puncturing the middle of the pass pocket is crucial to disrupting the usually controlled tempo of Manning's play calling. He is purely a rhythm, precision-based pocket-passer.
It is therefore essential to move him off his spot and prevent him from stepping up. Successful plays for Manning rely on exact timing. Speeding up his decision making and forcing him to freelance can destroy that timing.
The Steelers have a variety of ways to bring pressure up the middle. One of the best plays to utilise against Manning would be the "cross blitz." Run from either a 3-4, or nickel front, the pressure is designed to have two inside linebackers overlap and attack the corresponding gaps in pass protection.
One of the beauties of this play is that a defense can attack A or B gaps without creeping a blitzer up to the line pre-snap. Giving Manning an early tip off like that is like an open invitation for him to work the middle of the field.
Notice in the example in the video below, that the two blitzers, James Farrior and Larry Foote, maintain their regular alignments. However, the Steelers do shift their front five.
The defensive line shifts away from the weak side, with the defensive end on that side sliding into the B-gap and the nose tackle taking a 1-gap alignment in the strong side A-gap. With James Harrison on the line as a rush end on the weakside, the Steelers are still in their 3-4 shell, but now it resembles more of a 4-3 under front.
At the snap, Foote goes first, slanting across into the weak side A-gap. Farrior goes second, looping around Foote's rush and blitzing the strong side A-gap.
This swiftly executed exchange causes confusion for the center and most importantly, sends the quarterback running out to his right. That's just where Manning won't want to find himself.
The Steelers have the personnel to make this play work against Manning. Specifically, Lawrence Timmons could be the key player for defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau.
However, it's not just stunting linebackers that will work for the Steelers. LeBeau would be wise to use as many twists and games along his defensive line as possible.
Sacks, and even hits, aren't the chief objective here. Distracting and harassing Manning is the key. In particular, the Steelers must interfere with Manning's line of vision.
Using a tackle-tackle twist or a pirate stunt, with an end and tackle swapping rush lanes, from four-man nickel fronts is an excellent way to disrupt Manning's field of sight. Having two tall defensive linemen slant across in front of Manning is another way to cause him to pause in the pocket.
With the likes of Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme at his disposal, Manning is sure to target the middle hook and curl zones. It is vital for the Steelers to mix up their basic zone looks both pre- and post-snap.
In the video above, the Steelers show a cover-4 look. However, at the snap, the cornerback and safety Troy Polamalu exchange responsibilities.
The corner takes the deep outside, while Polamalu undercuts the intermediate sideline pattern, while the free safety rotates to the deep middle. This type of hoodwinking can only be made possible, if disruption and confusion occur up front.
If the middle is crowded and pressured, Manning will begin to force throws to the outside. This simple formula is the same one the New England Patriots used to stifle Manning for years. The Steelers must shift him off his spot and force him out of the pocket.
Deception in the secondary is important, but LeBeau can only do so much to hide his intent. There aren't many coverage combinations Manning won't have seen before, even after a full season away.
Applying constant pressure to the middle of the pocket makes deception in the secondary safer. It is the best way for the Steelers to spoil Manning's Broncos debut.