By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
DETROIT, Jan. 31 -- It's the kind of image that can keep an offensive lineman tossing and turning at night.
Over the last week or so, Robbie Tobeck, Seattle's 12th-year center, and his teammates on the line have studied videotape of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense, particularly the constant and often devastating blitzes that can come at any time, from any place on the field.
"You know they're going to be extremely physical," Tobeck said. "What you see is when they've been successful, they've basically gotten people into a panic. That's something we can't allow to happen. We've got to relax, take our time and make the adjustments to prevent something like that."
The Steelers have been a blitzing team ever since Bill Cowher showed up as their coach 14 years ago. One of the original architects of the Steelers' zone blitz schemes was Dick LeBeau, who played 14 years at cornerback in the NFL and spent six years as an assistant coach with the Steelers in the mid-1990s. He returned as the team's defensive coordinator in 2004, and his handiwork has been evident in Pittsburgh's run to Super Bowl XL.
No team in the NFL blitzed more than the Steelers in 2005, using the tactic on a league-high 287 pass attempts during the regular season. The blitz was primarily responsible for eliminating the top-seeded Indianapolis Colts in the second round of the AFC playoffs in a game in which quarterback Peyton Manning spent more time on his back than standing upright. Manning was so undone he complained afterward that his teammates simply couldn't protect him.
There was more of the same 10 days ago in the AFC title game, when the Steelers forced Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer into four turnovers -- two interceptions and two fumbles under a particularly heavy rush -- in Pittsburgh's upset at Denver's Invesco Field. In all three playoff victories, the Steelers stuffed their opponent's running game, made offenses become one-dimensional and took early leads, allowing their defense even more latitude to create mayhem -- and perhaps a little panic, as well.
"First of all, they have great athletes," Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren said Tuesday. "They have the kind of players who can execute what they ask them to do. You have to have the right people to run the schemes. In Pittsburgh's case, when they blitz the linebacker, that linebacker is really good at blitzing. We've all seen teams that blitz and the blitzer runs right into the blocker. It's an awesome collision, but he never gets home. Their players are physical, but they also have enough wiggle and speed to make it very, very difficult."
The Steelers operate out of a 3-4 alignment -- three down linemen and four linebackers. The front three linemen -- end Aaron Smith (298 pounds), nose tackle Casey Hampton (325) and end Kimo von Oelhoffen (299) -- provide a major push toward the quarterback, sometimes occupying two offensive linemen on one defensive lineman, creating openings for linebackers and defensive backs to rush the quarterback.
The zone blitz also often drops a defensive lineman into the pass-coverage lanes and almost always includes one safety playing in a deep zone.
If a linebacker blitzes, one of his teammates will simply play a zone to cover an area, as opposed to a specific receiver. Fifteen players had at least one sack this season for the Steelers, who were tied for third in the league with 47, including nine by safeties and cornerbacks. Linebacker Joey Porter led the Steelers with 10 1/2 sacks, and fellow linebacker Clark Haggans, Porter's former Colorado State teammate, had nine.
Strong safety Troy Polamalu, with the long hair he described Tuesday as "my fifth appendage," has emerged as arguably the Steelers' most dangerous defender. He's a 5-foot-10, 212-pound dynamo who lines up all over the field and has a knack for avoiding blocks and making huge hits -- in opposing backfields and the secondary if he stays in pass coverage.
"This kid Polamalu is the best football player I've ever seen," Denver defensive lineman Trevor Pryce said before the Steelers faced the Broncos in the AFC championship game. "There's something very strange about him that I can't put a finger on. They call him 'ninja' because he just pops out of nowhere and pops you. He's reckless. He does not care. He has an advantage being 5-10. When you're short and strong, you have an advantage because those 6-5 offensive linemen can't get a hold of anything to block."
During the regular season, Polamalu tied for fourth on the team in total tackles with 91, was second in interceptions (two) and added three sacks and three fumble recoveries. He has been just as impressive in the playoffs.
"I don't know if he's changing [the way defense is played], but he is a very unique player at his position," Cowher said. "He combines the athletic ability to cover, the explosion to be a great blitzer. He's also an outstanding tackler, and on top of that he's a very instinctive player."
He also studies more than most. After the 2004 season, Polamalu watched more than 20 hours of tape of the NFL's top safeties, including his role model, New England safety Rodney Harrison, as well as Denver's John Lynch and Dallas's Roy Williams.
Last year at the Pro Bowl, Polamalu played on the AFC team with Lynch and sought some one-on-one tutoring.
"Early in the week, he came up to me and said, 'Any way I could pick your brain and if you don't mind spend some time with you?' " Lynch told the Rocky Mountain News. "I respect that out of young players. The guy is committed to the game of football and obviously is a tremendous talent. He makes their defense go."
And blitz. But it isn't enough to merely blitz. A team must disguise its blitzing packages, and Polamalu is particularly adept at coming up to the line of scrimmage as if planning to rush the passer, then wheeling and turning his back on the offense as if to go back into coverage. Then he does another whirl at the snap of the ball and heads back toward the quarterback.
Porter also earned a trip to the Pro Bowl this year with his own disruptive tactics, and will try to do the same this week against Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
"I have to do something to make Hasselbeck feel not so comfortable in the pocket," Porter said. "I have to do something to make him run and get outside the pocket. I like my opportunity with me and Kimo over there, the way we've been playing. It's going to make for a good matchup.
"When we take the run away from teams, we're also playing to our strength, making them one-dimensional. When we make teams one-dimensional, I always like our chances."