Dick LeBeau and Rex Ryan are two of the best defensive minds currently employed in the NFL, if not the best. Ryan, as the head coach of the New York Jets, and LeBeau, as the longtime defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, will renew acquaintances once again this weekend as the Steelers face the Jets in their home opener.
While LeBeau and Ryan have faced off many many times, whether Ryan was a Jets or Ravens coach at the time, never before have their respective abilities to manage a defense been such a determining factor in a football game.
Both teams enter the game potentially without their most valuable defensive player.
Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu is questionable for the game with a calf injury, while Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis has already been ruled out because of a concussion. Not only are Revis and Polamalu each team's best defensive player (arguably their best players outright), they are also players who, if missing, significantly alter their respective team's schematic approach.
Polamalu and Revis have missed a combined 24 (Polamalu 21, Revis 3) games since becoming starters.
Revis' loss will simply put more pressure on the Jets' secondary, because they will no longer be able to roll coverage to one side of the field on every snap, but Polamalu's loss is a lot more intricate for the Steelers' defense.
Here is a break-down of Polamalu's unique role on the field.
The above images are taken from the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans games from last season. Because Polamalu played a lot of free safety in Ryan Clark's place last week, and because they would have had a special gameplan for Peyton Manning, you have to go back to last season to properly analyze the effects of playing without Polamalu on the Steelers defense.
In both of these images Polamalu is lined up as a linebacker alongside Larry Foote. Despite Polamalu being in the box, the Steelers still have two safeties deep(players with red 'x's over their heads) in Ryan Mundy and Ryan Clark. The Steelers trust Mundy as their third safety, and he is an important part of their nickel defense.
Without Polamalu, Mundy moves into the starting lineup and Will Allen becomes the primary backup. The Steelers are unlikely to play Mundy, Allen and Clark because none of the trio are overwhelmingly impressive in the box. Clark would be the best replacement for Polamalu in this role, but the Steelers would be reluctant to have two backups as the last line of defense.
In a passing league, where offenses are constantly looking to find advantages in matchups, this defensive formation allows the Steelers to blur the line between their base and nickel defense. Without Polamalu, however, the Steelers will likely bring in a fourth cornerback or keep more linebackers on the field.
Polamalu is built like a linebacker, but runs like he belongs in the secondary. As good as the Steelers linebackers and cornerbacks are, they won't be good enough to replace him.
From this formation, Polamalu becomes a factor not only for the quarterback, but for the offensive line and the running back. Polamalu's reputation often has quarterbacks noting where he is to avoid him, Peyton Manning repeatedly checked where Polamalu was lined up in Week 1 before deciding his play-call.
When lined up directly over the left guard, Polamalu makes each offensive lineman nervous.
Ever the antagonist, Polamalu's pre-snap movement is amongst the best in the NFL. At times he can jump over the offensive line at the snap of the ball and wrap up the quarterback as soon as he gets the ball. This play is less dramatic but just as effective.
Polamalu slowly approaches the line of scrimmage. Once he is in line with Brett Keisel on the defensive line, he jumps forward into an off-side position. All-Pro guard Logan Mankins has been taught to react to defenders in the neutral zone in order to get five free yards. However by the time Mankins has moved into the referee's sight, Polamalu has already jumped back behind his defensive line.
He didn't jump over the line of scrimmage at the quarterback. He didn't make a tackle in the backfield or break up a pass deep. Polamalu gained five yards for his defense, however, by simply being active and because of a well-earned reputation.
Press Coverage on Tight Ends:
As previously noted, the Steelers like to employ three safeties instead of an additional cornerback when in obvious passing situations. This often involves Troy Polamalu doing a variety of different things.
On this play, Polamalu is lined up directly over Rob Gronkowski. Despite being a threat to blitz Tom Brady off the edge, Polamalu is indeed in man coverage with the tight end. Even though it was 1st and 10 at midfield early in the second quarter, the Steelers approach to the Patriots meant their nickel defenses essentially replaced their base defense.
At the snap of the ball Brady immediately looked towards Polamalu's matchup with Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski is the focal point of the Patriots' offense and generally has an advantage over any player in single coverage.
The Steelers like to employ many cover-two defenses in passing situations. On this occasion, Mundy and Clark are covering deep and that allows Polamalu to play very aggressive press coverage on Gronkowski from the beginning of the play.
Even though he is receiving help over the top, Polamalu's ability to stick to the body of Gronkowski is phenomenal. Most defenders, whether they be cornerbacks, linebackers or safeties, wouldn't be able to run stride for stride with the big tight end without giving up an opportunity for him to catch the ball. Polamalu's combination of speed and strength allows him to stick to Gronkowski, however.
Brady's initial actions imply that he wanted to throw the ball to Gronkowski. He may have stayed too long with his tight end because other receivers gave him a better chance to complete a pass, but that is the effect of having a superstar difference-maker. Polamalu's play forced Brady to hold the ball longer than he is supposed to and allowed the Steelers' pass rush to eventually break through.
While Polamalu is still draped over Gronkowski 10 yards down the field, LaMarr Woodley attaches himself to Brady 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage for the sack.
By taking away Brady's first read, something that is generally impossible to do, Polamalu caused the future hall-of-fame quarterback to miss opportunities to complete throws to his other receivers outside the numbers.
Role in Disguising Coverage:
Dick LeBeau's defensive philosophy is based on confusing the quarterback. LeBeau believes in pressure leading to mistakes as opposed to sending every possible pass rusher after the sack. LeBeau wants the quarterback to hesitate and hold onto the ball in order to help his pass rush, while not exposing his secondary to a big play. He does this by using Polamalu's speed and rotating coverage.
On this play Polamalu is lined up directly over the center, just three yards from the line of scrimmage. This position, based on the overall formation, implies that Polamalu must be doing one of three things: Blitzing the quarterback, covering the running back or dropping into a zone over the middle.
The answer, eventually, is none of the above.
Polamalu's actual assignment is to cover the slot receiver to the left-hand side of the offense. Even though the Steelers' initial formation indicated that they were coming with a blitz from the right-hand side (of the offense) with only one safety deep and Polamalu doing one of the three original options, the Steelers are actually running another cover-two.
Ike Taylor comes off of the slot receiver to blitz the quarterback. William Gay, who was originally lined up deep over Nate Washington to the top of the screen, becomes one of two deep zone safeties. Lawrence Timmons rotates from the slot corner onto Washington, while James Farrior forgets feigning the blitz to cover Jared Cook in the right slot.
Once Matt Hasselbeck reaches the top of his drop, and his feet begin to come forward, Polamalu is already in position to intercept any attempted pass to his assigned receiver. Hasselbeck initially looked to the right, but saw the two linebackers dropping into coverage. That told him that the Steelers were blitzing from the other side.
The typical reaction to an overload blitz from either side is to throw into it. If Hasselbeck had thrown into the blitz without first fully assessing the situation, the Steelers would have tricked him into a turnover.
Instead, Hasselbeck holds the ball and is faced with difficult throws to every potential receiver. He eventually holds the ball too long and is swallowed by the Steelers' pass rush. Polamalu played an integral part in confusing the coverage.
This is somewhat of a specialty of Polamalu as a player and is an integral part of the Steelers' approach to defending the pass.
Polamalu's place prior to the snap on this play is simply incomprehensible for the opposing quarterback. Once again it is Hasselbeck who must try to diagnose what Polamalu will eventually do. If he were to read the defense, Hasselbeck would believe the Steelers were in zone coverage because they are outnumbered three-to-two at the bottom of the screen, while Polamalu isn't even looking in the direction of the spare man.
Polamalu is watching the snap and leaning toward the quarterback as if waiting to drop into a zone or sprint into the backfield.
The Steelers have been famous for their reliance on zone defenses under Dick LeBeau, however, over the past 16 months or so they have begun to adopt more man concepts. The additions of Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen in particular made that a possibility.
With Lewis and Ike Taylor outnumbered towards the bottom of the screen, Hasselbeck immediately looks in that direction to take advantage of any flooded zone. Instead Hasselbeck sees Taylor stick into the body of his receiver, as opposed to dropping back into a zone, while Lewis lies in wait for whatever receiver comes down the sideline.
At the snap, Polamalu pivoted and sprinted towards the outside to pick up Lavelle Hawkins in man coverage. Hasselbeck is forced to hold onto the ball longer than he anticipated again because none of his receivers are in position to catch the ball.
The combination of the changed coverage and the collapsing pocket causes Hasselbeck to miss a wide open Chris Johnson underneath. Hasselbeck instead looks to force the ball into a tight window between Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Hasselbeck would never have made the throw if he understood the coverage.
Against cover-two with man coverage underneath, it makes sense to drop the ball off to your running back in space because he will have plenty of room to take advantage of the open field, as Johnson did here.
Hasselbeck's throw has no chance of being complete. Ryan Mundy and Clark are in good position to knock the ball loose from behind, while Polamalu should have intercepted the ball in perfect coverage. Polamalu didn't come up with the interception, but outside of that the defense was executed to perfection.
What makes Polamalu special is his all-around game. He is incredibly fast, quick, intelligent and overwhelmingly physical. Polamalu's physicality often allows him to overcome any let-downs in his coverage.
The Titans are in the end zone with a run-oriented formation. Polamalu is in position to play the run with a fullback and tight end to his side of the field. There is one wide receiver outside the formation to the offense's right, while Polamalu has the left interior segment of a quarters coverage.
With play-action, the Titans pull Polamalu out of position initially. He does recover to his initial position, but is off balance when Nate Washington runs towards him before cutting towards the corner of the end zone. Polamalu is now in pursuit of Washington who has found a soft spot in the coverage.
The presence of Polamalu and Ike Taylor forces Hasselbeck to throw the ball high. However, his throw gives the defenders no chance of making a play on the football before Washington can come down with it. Washington stretches out and catches the ball, but exposes himself by full extending his arms.
Polamalu doesn't have the momentum to hit him to the body to try and knock the ball out. He instead waits for Washington to come down with the football before punching it clear with his strength. Many players have the power to knock the ball free from receivers, but Polamalu's instincts told him to go for the football before Washington could pin it to his body. That quickness and awareness was the difference between a goal-line stand and a touchdown.
It appears like a minimal movement, but it is a very intelligent use of his physicality to prevent a clear touchdown.
Troy Polamalu has not been ruled out for the Steelers' game with the Jets tomorrow just yet, but it doesn't look good, according to Ed Bouchette. The Jets' offense is a bit of an enigma. They may have scored 40 points against the Bills in Week 1, but that may say more about the Bills' futility than the Jets' incisiveness.
One thing is for sure, regardless of whom the Steelers are playing, Dick LeBeau has a lot of work to do to replace Troy Polamalu. Ryan Mundy is a good football player, but he is much more of a typical free safety as opposed to the incredibly unique strong safety that Polamalu is.
Cian Fahey writes for the Guardian and Irishcentral. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf