Visions of Blitzburgh 2005/2008: Can 2020 Steelers Defense Make History?

steelers.com

By: Bill Washinski
SteelerNation.com

 

When Chuck Noll drafted Joe Greene, it was the first step towards building a dynasty and a legacy that transformed into the identity of a franchise. For 50 years, over the course of the modern NFL (since merger), the Pittsburgh Steelers have been the most successful team in the league (most wins, division championships and Super Bowls) and whether it’s been called the “Steel Curtain” or “Blitzburgh,” the Steelers sustained success has been synonymous with physical, punishing and great defense.

For over 25 years since Dick LeBeau first introduced the 3-4 zone blitz, the Steelers have been a model of consistency in executing it. With accomplishments ranging from 12 consecutive seasons ranked in the top 10, leading the NFL in sacks six times, featuring three Defensive MVPs and finishing #1 overall on defense seven times to ultimately establishing their legacy with Super Bowl victories in 2005 & 2008 — Blitzburgh has withstood the test of time.

But just like the NFL has evolved in the rules, so has the way the Steelers employ Blitzburgh – and for the 2020 team to bring home the Lombardi Trophy, they are going to have to attain a similar level to 2005 and 2008. The question is, can they? Here’s a breakdown of some critical differences and players that will help answer that question:

 

The key to the Defense – Safety: Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Comparing Minkah Fitzpatrick to Troy Polamulu would be a topic unto itself. Suffice to say, they both constitute the key to the defense playing at an elite level or the team being .500. While their overall impact is similar, their games are completely different.  Polamalu was eventually given carte blanche to play ad hoc – Fitzpatrick is critical to providing help in the deep zone on effectively in every defensive package they employ (with success: pass defense holds QBs to the lowest completion percentage in the league) and leads team with in INTs and is 2nd in tackles.

Evaluation: Fitzpatrick is the key to making the Steelers defense great. He really is the Troy Polamalu of this defense. And while its unfair to compare Fitzpatrick to a Hall of Famer, if you stack 3rd year Troy and 3rd year Fitzpatrick – Fitzpatrick does not disappoint.

 

Defensive Line of a Different Kind: Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.

The Steelers DL of the 2000s: Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel were great. But their role was containment, stopping the run and controlling the line of scrimmage. And while “Big Snack” was a dominant NT, that role doesn’t exist in today’s NFL which places greater emphasis on speed.

In a deviation from how the Steelers traditionally played the 3-4 for 20 years, Heyward and Tuitt are asked to do considerably more. They both play around 85% of the snaps and are a substantial part of the Steelers pass rush. Both are very disruptive at the line of scrimmage and adept at rushing the passer. Heyward is a proven threat (career 56 sacks) and while his sacks are down this year, he commands attention and bringing pressure with 14 QB hits. Stephon Tuitt has always shown the flashes of his ability, but it has come together with a career year in 2020: 7 sacks, 2 fumbles, 7 tackles for loss and 18 QB hits. This duo is a fierce combination that does a lot more than take blockers out for the LBs to make the play.

Evaluation: Heyward and Tuitt increased expectations and responsibilities show just how much the Steelers have had to change their defensive philosophy based on talent and how the league has changed — it’s worth watching them in highlights to see just how much their pressure consistently impacts plays. A huge X factor is the leadership of Heyward, who has taken up that mantle like James Farrior and Joey Porter of the 2000s – so his importance is enormous.

 

Comparing to the Legends of OLB past:  TJ Watt and Bud Dupree.

If there is one position the Steelers have excelled at – the OLB position is the deepest and features the best players, including the best season of a Steelers OLB ever: 2008 James Harrison.

The Steelers love to play variations of the cover-3 in their scheme; but in traditional cover-3, the OLB is asked to read the QB and drop back into coverage. This is exactly what James Harrison did to Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XLIII. Rarely do we see Watt or Dupree in coverage because (1) they are so good at rushing the passer and (2) the Steelers will play them both at DE with many of the 4-man fronts they do to pressure without blitzing. Watt has 43.5 career sacks with six games to go in only his 4th season, more than halfway to Harrison’s team record (80.5) and is a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Watt is only a half sack from leading the NFL, but he is constantly putting on the pressure with 30 hits and nearly half of his tackles have been for loss. Dupree doesn’t get the press that Watt does, but is every bit as dangerous in the pass rush (#9 and #8 respectively) and is making much of his impact on the offense side of the line of scrimmage. What makes them both special is how they go after the ball when they get to the QB – they have both succeeded in forcing turnovers through pressure as well as strip sacks.

Evaluation: This pair is as good as any pair that have played as far as the pass rush is concerned – and that is their job. What makes them different from previous Steeler OLB combos is how frequently they are essentially DEs. With that in mind, don’t expect them to make a big INT or make a lot of tackles in coverage or as 2nd line of defense, but that’s okay. It’s not what is being asked of them – but if they are absolutely contained in big playoff game, it’s a sign of a bad day for us.

 

Hardest Position — Cornerback: Joe Haden

The Steelers really like to play variations of an aggressive cover-3 and that means the CBs are playing more of a deep zone on the sidelines. But they can shift to play man coverage and Joe Haden is a big reason why. Despite being targeted the 2nd most on the team, he’s holding QBs to under 50% completion and a 73.6 passer rating – surrendering only 2 TDs. He is the best Steelers CB since Ike Taylor and the only Steelers CB to earn Pro Bowl honors since Rod Woodson. As good as Taylor was in coverage, Hayden can bring the same level and the ability to force the big play in the way of INT or even tipping a pass or causing a fumble.

Evaluation:  Joe Hayden is the crucial to the teams ability to mix between coverages – including and especially man coverage. His impact doesn’t always show in the stat sheet – but it’s there plus Haden can generate a big play any given week.

 

Rest of Team/Scheme:

There is a lot of ground to cover here; but wanted to hit the main points and differences. The main combo of OLB (Watt/Dupree) are more DE than OLB this year. We do see mismatches and LBs trying to cover WRs (this is a well known aspect of a cover-3), but what it also means is that over the course of the game, the Steelers strategy is okay with sacrificing the QB completing throws earlier in the game with the goal as their goal is to sack, hit, pressure and wear the QB down into mistakes. The Steelers have a lot of confidence in the pass rush, as regardless of any other shortcomings, they have already tied the NFL record of leading the league in sacks three years running and are currently leading the way on a 4th (2017 to current).

It’s easy to criticize – but there are so many guys who have been major elements in what we’re doing that analysis on each would be too much. There are weaknesses and this defense is not going to carry the team to a championship like it did in 2008. But if the main six mentioned are healthy and playing at a high level, this defense can play with anyone. They are weak over the middle zone at times and can be exposed in the seam on zone coverage – but they have been overall the best defense a team vs. the pass (#1 sacks, #1 INTs, #1 passer rating & #2 yards) and what makes this unit “special” is how everyone is willing to do their part:

Mike Hilton is great cover corner in the slot and a major threat to blitz (despite missing 5 weeks, still more sacks than Heyward – 3). His return will be a boost.

The “weakest link” on the defense is #2 CB Steven Nelson, as he’s been the most targeted and given up the most yards, TDs and QBs have a 104.6 passer rating vs. him. But he’s outperforming most #2 CBs in the league – so it’s best to keep things in perspective.

Terrell Edmunds has taken on much of the responsibilities of Devin Bush. His 2 INTs speak highly to his improving instincts, but more important is how well he has played. Edmunds has been 3rd most targeted (starting 2 CBs) and has responded: allowing 55% completion, 54.9 passer rating and surrendering 0 TDs.  It can be argued that his size/speed combination and his knack for making tackles (over 100 last year & 3rd on team in 2020) puts in him the category of players we can’t do without.

Tyson Alualu has earned a lot of due credit playing NT in the base 3-4, though it’s not a huge role due to the 2 DL front frequently employed – but the DL is best when having him in the rotation.

Vince Williams and Robert Spillane have performed admirably in the middle, although neither has the best sideline-to-sideline speed, so while there is vulnerability vs. the pass, Williams is fierce when playing north-south and leads the team in both tackles and tackles for loss (though has a weakness of overplaying the angle and missing) and Spillane reminds one of Larry Foote in playing fundamentally sound if unspectacular play.

 

Summation: Can this defense be a Super Bowl winning defense? While there are teams that can cause match-up problems for the Steelers and they can be beaten — they will not overwhelm or dominate their way through the playoffs. But they have the personnel that can make big plays and do the most important thing — pressure the QB. It is all about the pass rush — because as long as they get to the QB and gets sacks, pressures, hits and hurry throws — they will generate turnovers and mistakes.

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