As he roams the Heinz Field sideline with piercing eyes, the wheels in his head turn and produce successive startling images of an overabundance of athletes bombarding barricades. The man is Dick LeBeau ,and those images are of the Fire Zone Blitz, a legendary defensive strategy that he has used for nearly 30 years to invade opposing fortresses.
On Sunday against the New York Jets, it was the same story as he quickly eradicated Gang Green’s early third down successes and put a halt to any offensive progress.
As the game progressed, the Jets offense seemed to regress as their third down distances appeared to get longer and longer while they came up shorter and shorter on plays. Because of the distant first down marker, the Steelers were able to blitz quarterback Mark Sanchez and force him to get the ball out quickly, cutting down his time to scan the field and find a teammate for a chain moving catch.
On one particular play in the second quarter inside the seven-minute mark, the Steelers forced the Jets into a three-and-out with a blitz from the short side of the field known as the “boundary”.
Gang Green was in a “Trips” set in the wide side of the field (“Field”) and a single receiver, Santonio Holmes, on the backside of the formation. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Steelers were in a two man front and four linebackers stood around them, hovering around the line of scrimmage while a defensive back walked down into the box. Two cornerbacks on the outsides aligned in a soft coverage that indicated zone (Cover 2) with their eyes focused on the quarterback.
Another look shows the guts of the Steelers defense: a front packed with five defenders. Five defenders would indeed be coming after Sanchez and the Jets six-man protection, but not quite the exact five in the box.
Instead, inside linebacker Larry Foote (50) dropped into zone coverage with “Hook” responsibility (in this case, cover the No. 3 receiver from the sideline presented post-snap). Outside of the tackle box, pass rusher LaMarr Woodley (56) also dropped into coverage, covering the receiver who is declared the #2 after the snap.
While Foote and Woodley dropped, linebackers Lawrence Timmons (94) and Jason Worilds (93) came downhill into the A-gap (area between center and guards). The latter wrapped around from the outside after a stunt with the near defensive end. The two safeties pictured would both rotate in opposite directions for 1/2 field responsibilities.
LeBeau’s blitz works to perfection and that’s because of its sublime design. The five-man rush is balanced with both outside and inside rushers and has created a significant numbers advantage for the defense. When taking a closer look at the blitz after the snap, the Jets offensive linemen that aren’t doing anything stand out.
The entire right side and center Nick Mangold are left to block one defender because of the pre-snap pressure from the two Steelers inside linebackers and Woodley. The perceived pressure from the inside linebackers forced Mangold to hold while right tackle Austin Howard expected pressure from Woodley, who never came and left Howard to help the right guard block the defensive end.
The other half of the Jets blockers? They’re — all three of them — left cleaning up the real problem: the four Steelers rushing and wreaking havoc.
With Timmons (94) running free on the inside, the running back is forced to come across and pick him up. Once this happens, defensive end Brett Keisel stunts into the gap to his right and forces the left guard and tackle to pick him up. As a result, Worilds (93) stunts right behind Timmons into the A gap and safety Ryan Clark (25) runs unblocked at Mark Sanchez to force a hurried throw.
With the pressure from Clark, Sanchez has to get rid of the ball quickly. But he runs into another issue: cornerback Ike Taylor is reading his upfield shoulder and is breaking on the ball as he reads. Because of the pressure from Clark and Timmons and the aggressiveness of Taylor, Sanchez throws a ball into the ground and the Jets go three and out.
The game film from the previous weeks helped LeBeau and the Steelers defense prepare for this play, which is why they blitzed from the short side of the field. They knew Sanchez would be throwing to his left — on a three-step drop, the quarterback reads one side — based off of the offense’s tendencies and adjusted to it with a call for the blitz.
LeBeau’s blitz concepts, adjustments, and ability to identify the tendencies of the opposition are a big reason for the Steelers’ successes on defense over the years and why they will continue to be one of the league’s best.