Houdini, Copperfield, Penn and Teller, there have been some incredible magic acts over the years. Whether it’s illusions or supernatural feats, each magician has something that sets him apart from the rest.
Perhaps there has never been a better disappearing act than the one the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been pulling in the fourth quarter this season.
Smothering, aggressive defense in the first half is giving way to tentative, cautious defense in the fourth quarter and it’s costing the defending champs on a number of levels.
So what is responsible for the late game defensive stall the Steelers have been experiencing?
The Steelers 3-4 zone blitzing scheme is very similar to a steam engine. What makes a steam engine work is heat and pressure. The more heat you place on the fuel, the more pressure is built up in the boiler pocket. It is this pressure that forces the steam to escape causing an explosive reaction to take place. The higher the heat the higher the pressure, and the higher the pressure in the boiler the faster the steam is forced to escape. It’s a chain reaction that forces a rapid response.
In essence the train moving has less to do with the muscle and sheer horsepower of the engine itself, and more to do with the amount of heat and pressure applied to what fuels it.
The Steelers defense has the muscle to be dominant, but what fuels that muscle is applying the heat and pressure that forces the quarterback to try to escape the pocket. This is when the Steelers defense is at their best.
The ability to begin a chain reaction on the line of scrimmage is what makes the zone blitz package so effective. When the front seven of the Steelers’ defense apply a maximum amount of pressure, it forces the quarterback to try to escape the pocket. If he is able to escape the pocket the scrambling quarterback is forced to make quicker decisions while dealing with the oncoming defenders. By collapsing the pocket and forcing the quarterback to move, the defense has now changed the angle of the field.
By changing the angle of the field you have essentially narrowed the field and created the optimal situation for crossing defensive backs or linebackers to jump routes and create turnovers.
The Steelers have come out of the gate hot in all four games this first quarter of the season. The heat has been stifling at times as the pre-game adrenaline has been fuel enough to carry them in the first half, but don’t be fooled. The Steelers defense is not running on all cylinders.
In almost every game this season the Steelers have been able to build a comfortable lead in the first half. Rather than stoking the fire at halftime the strategy has changed to a passive approach.
Similar to when a team takes the air out of the ball and decides to run the clock when a lead becomes comfortable, the Steelers have begun to do the defensive equivalent in the fourth quarter this season.
For whatever reason the unyielding, aggressive nature of the defense becomes a give and take mentality. While the goal may be to take away the deep play and keep the game in front of them with a big lead, the Steelers are giving their opponents open flats and intermediate passing opportunities as a result.
The “take” has got to far exceed the “give” if a team is going to be successful with this approach, and even then teams are putting themselves in a high-risk situation playing not to lose.
The Steelers are giving away more opportunities, points and yards in the fourth quarter than any other team in the National Football League this season, and much of it has come from the change in defensive philosophy late in the game.
The evidence is in the turnover ratio for the Steelers this season. Entering the game yesterday the team had just one interception. Being that Troy Polamalu has that interception to is credit, and has not played since the first half of the season opener it has been a while since the Steelers’ faithful has seen another one.
While many fans are beginning to recognize the importance of Troy Polamalu to the Steelers defense, Polamalu’s absence is not something the team is unaccustomed to dealing with. Remember, the Steelers were without Polamalu for a stretch last season, and many times during his career. The difference between what the Steelers did in his absence last season and this year is the difference between 5-0 and 3-2.
While Polamalu is one of the greatest players in the game he is not the only deciding factor in the team’s defensive success. The issues lie solely on the shoulders of Dick Lebeau and the Steelers’ coaching staff.
The Steelers biggest weakness defensively is their pass defense. The loss of Bryant McFadden has hurt them more than anyone wanted to admit in the preseason. William Gay has underperformed especially in coverage inside of 15 yards from scrimmage, and the rest of the secondary has not covered well in zone and cover two schemes once the pass rush has been halted in the fourth quarter.
While it is encouraging for Steelers fans that the team played relatively well against the Lions, there are two concerns remaining. One, it was the Lions, and they were playing without Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson. Two, while there was a bit more pressure this week than in weeks prior, there was still a noticeable defensive lapse in the fourth quarter.
Until the Steelers find a way to get over whatever insecurities they have about late game blitzing, opponents will continue to exploit them when given the opportunity. While they have managed to win in recent weeks despite looming problems, the Steelers will not have the same easy schedule after the Browns come to town next week.
If the Steelers are going to make the playoffs with the intentions of doing more than taking up space for a week, they are going to have to regain 2008 form defensively in order to do so. Ultimately it would be in the best interest of the team to remedy the current problems before Polamalu returns. If they are able to do so, his presence will not be the stable, calming force the fans are calling for him to be, but rather the disruptive one he is meant to be.