Sunday, January 09, 2011

If truth be told, defense is best

Sunday, January 09, 2011
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

Linebacker LaMarr Woodley gets Tennessee's Chris Johnson high and Ryan Clark gets him low. The Steelers halted Johnson's streak of 100-yard games in their 19-11 victory earlier this season.

Throughout the regal history of professional football in Pittsburgh, a wealth of gifted people have taken the mere opportunity to play defense as an invitation to turn themselves into monuments.

Mean Joe Greene is probably the greatest Steeler ever, but for all his exhaustively documented accomplishments, for all his fully deserved gigantism in the comparative literature of the region, Joe Greene never did what Ziggy Hood has done.

Just as Jack Lambert never did what Nick Eason has done, just as Ernie Holmes nor Big Daddy Lipscomb nor Ernie Stautner ever did what Chris Hoke and Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel and Casey Hampton have done.

This is the new history, and it's a little startling in its import.

The defenders who'll go back to work in earnest this week at 3400 South Water Street are not just the best run stoppers in the NFL as we know it this morning, but the best run stoppers in the history of this franchise.

That is true statistically, as irrefutable mathematics, but make no interpretative mistake: That is The Truth. And, as opposing running backs have learned the hard way all season, The Truth hurts.

"I feel good about it as a coach, but this all goes to the players," said assistant head coach John Mitchell, who's coached defensive linemen around here for 17 years with both an entrenched excellence and an impenetrable humility. "What we've got here is continuity. I got Aaron Smith when he was a kid, Casey Hampton when he was a kid, Brett Keisel, Chris Hoke, we all grew up together and we've reached an understanding.

"They understand the defense. They understand what I want. I understand what they can and can't do."

What they and everyone else at every depth of Dick LeBeau's special edition 3-4 defense can do when the opponents hand the ball off is as fearsome as it is unprecedented.

The first eight opponents of 2010 failed to gain even 75 yards on the ground. No ball carrier gained 100 yards. (Only one, Baltimore's Ray Rice, has done so in the past 50 games.) No team managed to gain as many ground yards as they averaged prior to seeing the Steelers. Tennessee got 202 in its opener, then 46 against Pittsburgh. Oakland, averaging 162, got 61. Baltimore, averaging 114, got 43. Cleveland, averaging 107, got 43. New England came closest, slicing out 103 after averaging 107.

Mostly, opponents just quit on the run. The 333 rushing attempts against the 2010 Steelers were the fewest since the strike-truncated autumn of 1982.

"I think the neatest stat is that we only allowed one 20-yard run all year, because that's a credit to all 11 guys," Keisel said. "This hasn't been just about the defensive front. The secondary has tackled really well when backs have tried to bounce it to the perimeter."

The Steelers allowed only 1,004 rushing yards this season, which is 62.75 per game, but most instructively, just 3.015 per carry. The best Steelers defense ever, according to the gospels, was the 1976 version that pitched five shutouts and held nine of its 14 opponents to fewer than seven points. That defense yielded 3.22 yards per carry. Pittsburgh's six Super Bowl champions allowed between 3.29 yards per carry (2008) and 4.23 (1975).

"The philosophy of run defense has never changed here," said Eason, now in his fourth year as a Steeler and the guy who just happens to be the excellent answer to "What if Aaron Smith can't play?"

"We play great technique, we fit in our gaps, and we let the play come to us. We play with that kind of framework all through the defense."

Analysts and pundits are constantly screeching about making plays, but Mitchell's approach, and to an extent LeBeau's even as he oversees a defense that makes critical plays fairly constantly, is far more calculated.

"Don't try to make plays," Mitchell said he tells his d-linemen. "When you do that, that's when you get out of position."

"That has never changed," Keisel said. "From the first year I got here [2002], Coach Mitchell has said, 'I don't care about sacking the quarterback, don't care about rushing the quarterback. We are here to stop the run.'

"Each player has his responsibility and if it's carried out, there shouldn't be any creases for ball-carriers."

To this point, obviously, there have been fewer creases than in a linen tablecloth. The Steelers have stacked defensive expertise on top of itself around here for a long time. George Perles, Bud Carson, Bill Cowher, John Mitchell, Dick LeBeau, Mike Tomlin, but why, do you suppose, has a defense that hasn't changed its bedrock philosophies in so long not revealed to some offensive genius so much as one way to block it?

The answer, from multiple sources, is that the LeBeau/Tomlin 3-4 is not like the New England 3-4 or the San Diego 3-4. The Steelers are a two-gap team playing one-gap techniques, and without going all Merrill Hoge on ya, let's just say it's a burst of unorthodox technique from a strict orthodox alignment, which is confusing and even surprising to the people trying to execute against it.

"That's right," said linebacker James Farrior. "I've played the 3-4 elsewhere and it's not like this. The surprising thing about this year is that we were missing Aaron Smith [for 10 games] and Brett Keisel [for five]. I mean those guys are the keys to the defense along with Casey. Aaron Smith is one of the best players I've ever played with."

Eason and Hood and Hoke and Hampton have clearly played the heck out of that 3-4, all the way into Steelers history. Don't think they didn't get away with it in part because of superb contributors at every level of the defense, particularly the excellence of the linebackers.

"Yeah," Farrior smiled coyly, "that might have had something to do with it."

Gene Collier:

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