Dick LeBeau shows Troy Palomalu (43) in-game adjustments.
Consider Monday night’s game against the Steelers to be San Francisco’s end-of-semester test, one whose outcome will have a great deal of impact on the final grade. For this game brings front and center a subject in which the 49ers have struggled, and it’s taught by Dr. Blitz.
He’s better known as Dick LeBeau, the long-time defensive coordinator of the Steelers. LeBeau’s belief in the flexibility of the 3-4 defense built around fast, active, mean linebackers has been a foundation of Steelers football since the mid-1980s.
LeBeau is a big believer in creating confusion, and few things create confusion for an offense than not being sure whence the pass rushers come. What’s more, many offenses see blitz and click off to automatic “hot” reads or throws, which are usually short and quick passes to spots.
That’s what makes the Zone Blitz so dangerous; sometimes that hot throw is where a defensive lineman drops back into coverage, unbeknownst to the quarterback. Voila, interception.
The Steelers are gelling defensively; they’ve given up 19 points in their last three games, including a crucial win over Cincinnati. But then, wins over Cleveland and Kansas City have to be said as to mean not all that much.
It’s a crucial game for the 49ers in that a victory will help propel them to a No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Being No. 2 means having a week off and playing at home.
Finishing as the third seed, which may not seem like much, will mean a home game on the second week of January, and then most likely a road trip to New Orleans, a place to be avoided right now at all costs.
That’s why Monday night’s game will be a huge test, one in which we should learn the following five things.
Steelers defenders like Troy Polamalu, James Farrior, James Harrison (assuming he plays after a successful appeal of his one-game suspension) and Lawrence Timmons are all big, fast, strong players who roam the field like rabid wolves.
No doubt the Steelers defenders have looked over the 49ers offensive line performance of the last three games (18 sacks for a league-high of 39) and are wearing full bibs to cut down on unsightly salivating.
The Niners need to control this part of their offense; and playing at home will help. Their line will be able to get off the snap without having crowd noise delay their reactions. They are playing on grass which helps slow fast defenses.
One thing about LeBeau and the Zone Blitz and similar “either-or” tactics employed by many attacking defenses: they leave a defense vulnerable to big plays. Baltimore’s 23-20 win over the Steelers in early November turned on big plays...namely one-on-one coverage by Steeler cornerbacks.
And it doesn’t have to be the pass that does it; a clean break through a blitz package leaves fewer defenders on the backlines, and that can mean big plays for running backs as well.
Handling it, however, depends on a quarterback recognizing it before the snap and communicating changes if needed to his teammates. It’s called execution. It starts with an offensive coordinator getting the call to the quarterback early, and then the processes carry on through. It’s a big test.
For such an apparently strong defensive team, the Steelers give up 4 yards per rush attempt, which puts them 19th in the league. In contrast, the Niners rank first at 3.2 ypa.
For a team seemingly schooled in tough football, this is an alarming stat, especially considering some of the weak running teams on their schedule: Indianapolis, Kansas City, Cleveland and New England.
The numbers suggest that the Steelers might be a little vulnerable on the ground. After failing on crucial third-and-1 and then fourth-and-1 plays in the waning minutes of last week’s 21-19 loss to the Cardinals, the 49ers, a strong running team, might want to reconsider their tactics.
We saw it again last week, a short, quick throw in the end zone to Braylon Edwards. It’s a throw called the “back shoulder fade,” meaning that the receiver pushes up field, keeping the defender worried that he’s going to get past him.
The ball, however, is delivered “short” or behind the receiver-defender tandem. It works when the receiver knows this and stops accordingly.
It usually works when the receiver sees the throw and realizes he has to stop. Or the quarterback and receiver have worked on it so much that it is second nature.
In either case, Braylon Edwards (17), who is 6’3”, has been the choice for offensive coordinator Greg Roman. But this play hasn't worked. Blame the lack of training camp time. Blame Edwards' injuries, but it’s failed.
It also failed against St. Louis and it failed against Cleveland. Alex Smith and Edwards are not clicking on this crucial play.
It’s often the best choice because defenses jam the line of scrimmage, leaving cornerbacks in 1-on-1 coverage, making the back-shoulder fade very attractive.
It’s time for Edwards, or Michael Crabtree, or anyone, to make this play to overcome 49er red-zone frustration.
To Arizona’s credit, the Cardinals defensive line deflected three passes at the line of scrimmage. It helps that DT Calais Campbell is 6’8”. He’s quite an obstacle.
That said, the Steelers disrupt opposing quarterbacks’ comfort zones. Part of it is that they attack from all angles with all kinds of combinations.
It’s also that they like to intimidate. Here’s where the offensive line, led by Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati, have to step up.
Leaky pass protection does not bode well in this game. It could lead to serious injury for Smith, and that could really dampen 49er playoff hopes.
Keeping Smith upright and in rhythm is essential for success Monday night, but also for the playoffs.
In contrast, take a look at a New Orleans or Green Bay game. Compared to Smith, who often has been frazzled in his setup during pass plays, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers look like they’re playing catch on the beach. Relaxed, confident and steady, the ball comes out deadly accurate.
The 49ers need that this week, or they won’t last long in the playoffs.
Indoor teams in particular have a huge advantage when it comes to crucial games. Crowd noise becomes a huge factor.
Audibles by the opposing offense become less than reliable. Linemen can’t hear snap counts. They start early, and it creates a cycle in which the other team performs as if blind.
The Niners need that advantage right now; they need to have the Steelers offense just a little ragged due to being unsure of when to start, what play to run and who is coming.
It is a game that figures to be low-scoring and hard-hitting. It also figures to be a game in which Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger may not play. He’s definitely hampered with a high ankle sprain.
If the crowd creates an environment in which the Steelers cannot get off the line well, which creates pass protection problems, you might see Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin do the prudent thing: keep Big Ben on the bench.
It would reduce his chances of re-injury, which could imperil Roethlisberger’s chances to play pain-free in the playoffs. He’s a quarterback who is known for moving well in the pocket to keep plays alive, but here he can’t move.
Tomlin has to think long-term. So do the Niners fans. Creating an environment that gives the Niners an edge means they’ll move that much closer to getting the second playoff seed.