While the Texans seemingly play the Baltimore Ravens every single season for one reason or another, J.J. Watt and company have not met the Ravens' biggest rival – the Pittsburgh Steelers – on the field in three years. In the last contest between both teams, Andre Johnson went down with a severe hamstring injury, Duane Brown broke James Harrison’s eye socket, Mario Williams finished his last complete game as a Texan, the Texans' offense mounted an unbelievable drive that lasted a full 11 minutes, and Arian Foster tallied 155 yards on the ground, the most by a running back against the vaunted Steelers defense in nearly a decade to that point. For such a seemingly inconsequential Week Four matchup, a lot happened. That was a gut check game for the new and improved 2011 Texans. Nobody had even heard of J.J. Watt back then, nobody believed that Arian Foster was more than just a one year wonder, and certainly nobody believed that such a young, historically awful franchise could overcome a Steelers team fresh off a Super Bowl appearance.
And yet they did.
Fast forward a few seasons, and both teams find themselves in similar situations. The Texans rose to new heights and sunk to new lows in consecutive campaigns while the Steelers have floundered at 8-8 for the past two years. Both teams are desperately trying to compete in the middle of mild rebuilding phases, and both teams have a lot to prove under the prime time lights. Pittsburgh wants to remain relevant in a tough AFC North division; Houston just wants to show they are relevant at all. If Bill O’Brien and company want to put themselves into the national conversation in front of a huge audience, it all starts with how many points they can put up on a Steelers defense that is far weaker than its 2011 iteration.
Step 1: Understand what they do
The Dick LeBeau defense has always relied on deception to get to the quarterback, but for a long time the black and gold also had multiple stud pass rushers that could get into the back field without help from overload blitzes or whatever crazy pressure packages the coaching staff could put together. Whether it was James Harrison, Lamarr Woodley, or even Aaron Smith, Dick LeBeau always had personnel that could just flat out whoop people at the line of scrimmage.
These days, however, the Steelers have trouble generating any consistent pass rush against good offensive lines without sending the kitchen sink at them. The wins in one-on-one matchups are not happening as frequently anymore. Cameron Heyward can get some work done when he is not being constantly double-teamed, and even Brett Kiesel and Jason Worilds have been disruptive on occasion. However, nobody is coming close to the consistent domination that the team used to enjoy from guys like Harrison in his prime.
LeBeau runs what is called a "Zone Blitzing 3-4". The concept is simple – stop the run, get the opponent into third and long, and unleash hell with blitz packages that would make any offensive coordinator lose sleep. Typically the base defense looks something like the diagram below.
The defensive line is set up in a traditional "two-gap" alignment with both defensive ends playing either a "4-technique" or a "5i-technique" over the offensive tackles. The nose tackle can be shaded to either side of the center, or even head up on the center in a "0-technique". All three defensive linemen will engage and "stack" on their blocker while tracking the ball. Rather than penetrating into an assigned gap, the linemen will virtually hold two different gaps by stacking on their man and shedding the block into whichever gap the ball carrier decides to run. The better these linemen are at stacking and shedding, the more double teams they will inevitably draw on run plays. The more double teams they draw, the more space the linebackers have to fly to the ball unopposed. At its core, this traditional "two gap" approach is designed to give the linebackers as many opportunities to make plays as possible.
On the back end, the secondary typically lines up in a "single high" look with the free safety patrolling the middle of the field deep and the strong safety roaming closer to the line of scrimmage. Both starting corners handle either deep-third duty in zone or shadow their receivers in man coverage depending on the call. LeBeau corners line up in "off coverage" most of the time to remain ambiguous between man and zone looks, but they are asked to press at times as well when they need to disrupt timing routes and give blitzers enough time to reach their target. Speed, fluid hips, and quick feet are the keys here. If the corner is clunky when closing on breaks from seven yards off the line of scrimmage, too slow to keep up in trail technique when pressing, or not fluid enough to adjust to route stems down field, he will be eaten alive. With no guaranteed help over the top or inside with how many blitzes the Steelers run every week, corners have almost no margin for error in this system. Either they do their job, or everyone on this defense suffers the consequences.
However, LeBeau – being the defensive genius that he is – does not exclusively subscribe to traditional "two-gap" looks for his 3-4. While his game plan against the Browns last week called for a lot of the bread and butter "5-0-5" alignment, Week Four’s tilt with the Buccaneers saw many more one-gap looks.
The secondary and linebackers largely remain the same, but the defensive line has shifted into a 3-1-4 alignment from a 5-0-5. The weak side defensive end is now essentially a 3-technique defensive tackle, the nose tackle is now an aggressive 1-technique penetrator and block absorber for the center and strong side guard, and the strong side 5-technique shifts slightly inside to the 4-technique to allow himself to penetrate through the tackle’s interior shoulder more easily. What’s more, this alignment is vague enough to allow for two-gapping or one-gapping depending on the situation.
With Tampa having a young quarterback, a week interior offensive line, and no offensive coordinator (Bucs OC Jeff Tedford is on an indefinite medical leave of absence), LeBeau opted to throw caution to the wind and ruthlessly attack the offense at every available opportunity. In fact, I noticed an interesting trend where after every converted first down for the Tampa Bay offense, the Steelers immediately called for an overload blitz on the next play. As soon as the Bucs felt they had any sort of rhythm building, LeBeau wanted that confidence crushed at all costs. Pittsburgh might not have the talent they used to, but there is no denying that their mentality is the same as ever.
Step 2: Mitigate their strengths
The Bucs and the Browns both had offensive success against the Steelers, yet both of them did it in different ways. Cleveland neutralized the Pittsburgh blitz-heavy pass rush by continuously running the ball and passing off of play action. With linebackers having to take an extra few beats to read their run keys and fill lanes rather than blitz, Brian Hoyer had enough time to get the ball down field against a very weak Steelers secondary. Not only that, but Pittsburgh was afraid to blitz the Browns offense with the same frequency as they did against Tampa because of Cleveland’s perimeter run game. Kyle Shanahan, who I believe might be one of the best offensive innovators in the entire NFL, ran pitches, reverses, tosses, and sweeps constantly to keep pressuring the edges of the defense. With the linebackers having to be on standby to run down the threat to the perimeter, LeBeau was reluctant to send them flying up the middle while leaving the edges exposed and outnumbered. The perimeter run game might not have busted off big gains on every down, but simply establishing the threat of the run was enough to give Brian Hoyer the time break off some huge gains through the air. Shanahan’s performance for the Browns in Week Six was some of the best offensive play calling you will see all season.
Tampa Bay took their fair share of hits from the Steelers defense, which to be honest is expected from a team with no offensive coordinator, but they dished out quite a bit of damage themselves. Before we get too far into the Bucs offense, however, lets dive into the aggressive Steelers game plan that was mentioned in step one. Dick LeBeau, as touched on before, made heavy use of what is known as a "run blitz". A run blitz is different from the "zone blitzes" that the Steelers are famous for because rather than dropping a defensive lineman or linebacker off the line of scrimmage into zone coverage (hence the name zone blitz) as a sort of mouse trap for quarterbacks that they cannot see ahead of time, a run blitz often sends six or even seven players flying towards the back field without anyone dropping into coverage to compensate.
The penetrating defensive line and linebackers all have a designated gap to hit as part of the blitz. Every single one of them are essentially playing the run on the way to the quarterback. If a run play is called, they are aggressively disrupting the line of scrimmage to limit any yards gained on the ground. If a pass play is called, protection will likely be overloaded anyway and there is a good chance of the passer being affected in some way. For a smart coordinator like LeBeau who wants to give the Bucs as little chance as possible of developing any rhythm whatsoever, this was a good first down game plan that could disrupt both the run and the pass equally. Let us look at a couple of examples.
This is a first down play with 6:19 to go in the first quarter. Just before the snap, the weak side inside linebacker (WILB) sends a very subtle signal to free safety Mike Mitchell just as Bucs tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins motions across the line of scrimmage.
Mitchell then times Sefarian-Jenkins’ motion and begins running towards the line before the snap. The blitz is on.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward in the 3i-technique and nose tackle Steve McClendon both slant one gap over to the weak side off the snap, a clear indication that they are trying to create space for a blitz from the strong side.
Slants are a common call for defensive coordinators that want to get offensive lines either moving in the wrong direction against a blitz or who want to make protection schemes uncomfortable when having to pass off defenders amongst themselves. Slants test unity, they test technique, and they sure as hell test composure. As soon as the line becomes overly concerned with passing off the slanting 3-technique, a blitzing linebacker can barrel his way through and wreck a play. If the line gets nervous about the blitzing backer and does not pass off the slant properly, the defensive lineman will get through and wreck the play anyway. It truly is a lose-lose situation for the offense unless their execution is absolutely spotless. Spotless execution is not something that is to be expected from a coordinator-less Buccaneers offense.
Mitchell is coming into the now-vacant B gap with WILB Sean Spence not far behind on a delayed blitz to the C gap. With Heyward likely drawing the left guard on his slant and Mitchell drawing the left tackle with his blitz, Spence should be theoretically free to come through the line untouched whether the play is run or pass.
Luckily for Cameron Heyward, however, the slant discombobulated the offensive line. Logan Mankins passed Heyward off into thin air as the center advanced to the second level without giving the Steelers defensive end a second thought. Now running untouched into the back field, Heyward easily brought Doug Martin down for a crucial first down loss. This is the exact idea that Dick LeBeau had when he put together this run blitz-heavy game plan against the Bucs – punch them in the mouth before they can punch you. Take a look at this play in full speed to get a better appreciation for all the little moving parts at work here.
This second quarter play is an equally appropriate example of the Steelers’ plan against the Bucs. After converting a first down on a Doug Martin run in the beginning of the second quarter, LeBeau dialed up yet another run blitz to try to put Tampa Bay back in their place.
Weak side 3-technique Cam Thomas and Steve McClendon both slant to the weak side and then stack on the right tackle and center to two-gap against the run. Heyward, the strong side 5i-technique, also slants one gap to the weak side, but instead of two-gapping he intends to penetrate along with the blitzing linebacker, Lawrence Timmons. The goal for Timmons here is essentially to hide behind Heyward off the snap, let the defensive line draw the left guard inside, and then crash the B gap as a free blitzer.
Spence, as the weak side linebacker, then rotates over in zone coverage in case the tight end (orange circle) reads Timmons' blitz and runs a "hot route" to the now-vacant part of the field. This is a common baiting tactic that blitz-heavy coordinators use in their schemes to try to generate cheap turnovers. Even if the blitzers do not get a sack, if they can pressure the quarterback into panicking and throwing to a covered hot receiver, eventually the defense will get their hands on the ball.
Heyward (yellow circle) does his job and gets Mankins inside. Timmons is now free to hit the B gap without any lineman being in his face. Arthur Moates has also gotten a great jump off the snap and is in the process of beating the left tackle around the edge.
Heyward’s swim move across the face of Mankins worked perfectly. Not only did he free up Timmons (who ended up being cut down by Martin anyway), but he outright beat his blocker one-on-one to get into the back field. That is something that has been far too rare for the Steelers so far this season.
For the sake of reiterating my point, this was a great plan by LeBeau. Logan Mankins is obviously struggling at left guard on his new team, there is a young quarterback who has not seen this kind of defense before, and in such a close game the Bucs could not be allowed to gain any momentum. Every gap was accounted for, execution was flawless, and Mike Glennon had nowhere to go. Run or pass, rain or shine, this was the perfect call.
Out of 15 run blitzes called against the Bucs throughout the course of the entire game, 9 of them were slants to the weak side to open up a blitz from the strong side, 4 of them were slants to the strong side to open up a weak side blitz, and 2 of them were slants to both sides to open up rushes up the gut. That trend speaks to LeBeau’s preference to bring his pressure from areas where he has more bodies to work with. In the Steelers' base defense, there are as many as five defenders lined up on the strong side of the offensive formation between the nose tackle, defensive end, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, and strong safety. That is a lot of firepower at a defensive coordinator’s disposal, and if used properly, that many potential penetrators can do quite a bit of damage. Here are three more examples of at least one defensive lineman slanting weak to free up linebackers and safeties to charge into gaps with reckless abandon.
And of course here are two more examples of the line slanting strong to free up weak side blitzers. Remember, we are not focusing on the result of the play here, but rather what LeBeau’s defensive call was pre-snap. Some of these blitzes may not be obvious because they happen against a run play, but the slanting of the line and the subtle movements of linebackers and safeties are a dead giveaway to what the Steelers' defense intended to do.
So how did the Bucs counter the aggressive Steelers game plan? By getting aggressive themselves with a spread passing game. Complex blitz schemes – especially those that involve a lot of moving parts – rely on ambiguity. Having to spread the defense all across the field removes bodies from around the offensive line. With fewer defenders floating near the offensive line, that means fewer people available to disguise and execute a blitz. Stopping the spread is a more straight forward affair than stopping a traditional NFL offense, and Dick LeBeau cannot do "straight forward" with his current personnel. Without disguise, without deception, and without flexibility, the Steelers' pass rush becomes relatively toothless. Cameron Heyward is the only member of the front seven who can consistently win one-on-one matchups with offensive linemen, which is unfortunately (for the Steelers) what stopping the spread demands.
Take a look at this snap for instance. Tampa is in a three wide receiver set with Louis Murphy in the slot. Nickel cornerback Brice McCain is showing a blitz from the slot, which is corroborated by Mike Mitchell "capping" on Murphy from way down field. The easy pre-snap read is to take a quick gain by throwing hot to Murphy on the out route and hoping for some magic after the catch. Worst case scenario, the offense gains five yards; best case scenario they get a big play in the face of a neutered blitz. As stated before, spacing out a Dick LeBeau team heavily mitigates his ability to disguise his intentions.
The ball is snapped, and Glennon immediately looks for Murphy as his hot. Mitchell has no prayer of stopping this reception from that far out.
Despite only gaining five yards on the play, this was an easy five yards that the Bucs really needed.
Plays like these discourage blitzing in the first place because they send a strong message that sending extra rushers only leads to automatic five yard gains. If an offense can take away a defense’s best asset, that defense is in for a long day. For those who are wondering just what I mean by a safety "capping" a receiver and how that can lead to effortless gains against the blitz, take a look back at my piece on the ideal Bill O’Brien quarterback and the offense he is bringing to Houston. Here is a Bill O'Brien quote from that article that details the importance of tracking safeties when deciphering blitzes.
"When you break the huddle at quarterback, you have to think high to low. You can’t think low to high. I don’t care if it’s a run or a pass. Train your quarterback [when he breaks the huddle] to say ‘Where are the safeties?’ Find the safeties. I always tell the kid to find the weak safety, find the strong safety. Just train the kid to find the safeties.
Corners, you guys all know the corners on your team. They’re the sneaky dudes, man. They’re the guys, they got a lot of bravado, and they’re confident, and they’re the ones that can lie to you. Them safeties, those are the guys that direct the show back there. They can lie to you too, don’t get me wrong, but you’ve got to locate them because whether it’s pre-snap or post-snap, they’re going to tell you about what the defense is doing.
So here’s what we say. I’m just talking about two high right now, but if the safeties are twelve yards deep and they’re somewhat off the hash, more than likely they’re playing cover two. If they’re eight to ten yards deep and they’re over your number two receivers, more than likely they’re playing cover four. If they’re under eight yards, those two safeties, and maybe the weak safety is cheating to number three or maybe he’s over number two weak. If they’re under eight yards or they’re hovering in that shallow area, something’s up…it’s blitz zero – especially if it’s empty."
"[If] we put the running back out there as the widest receiver and the corner just bumps out, well, you know it’s zone coverage. If you get empty and you put the back out there on one side or the other as the widest receiver and a linebacker goes out there with him, it’s some type of man coverage. If a safety goes out there with him, it’s some type of man coverage and it’s probably blitz so that they leave the linebackers in the box because they’re going to blitz him."
In other words, a "capping safety" is essentially a safety that is subtly aligned in off-man coverage on a receiver in the place of a disguised blitzer. Whether it is a slot cornerback or a linebacker, if a safety is capping a receiving threat anywhere along the line of scrimmage, that is a telltale sign that something is coming. Here are two more examples of a capping safety giving away a blitz pre-snap. Whether or not Glennon actually saw the cap and whether or not the Bucs offense took advantage of the blitzes is another matter entirely, but the warning signals were there nonetheless.
So what does this all have to do with the Texans? For starters, Bill O’Brien is very, very good at running a spread offense out of a variety of personnel groupings. Hell, one could argue that the O’Brien offense, a variation on the Erhardt-Perkins system, is specifically catered to counter aggressive defenses like the one found in Pittsburgh in the first place.
Between identifying safety alignments, building hot reads into every single passing play, and sliding protections pre-snap to account for defenders that jump into their shells too early, O’Brien’s offense is perfectly set up to neutralize and exploit blitzes out of spread formations. The true question here is not whether O’Brien’s system is a good fit for this game, but rather if Ryan Fitzpatrick can execute the game plan at an acceptable level.
Step 3: Attack their weaknesses
We have established what the Steelers’ strengths are, and we have established how to at least limit those strengths, but for the purpose of putting up a lot of points the Texans still have to find a way to exploit some weaknesses. In the case of this 2014 Steelers team that is temporarily without Ike Taylor and no longer has Keenan Lewis on the roster, that weakness is far and away the cornerbacks. William Gay is Pittsburgh’s best cover corner, but even for most NFL teams, he would be considered a number two guy at best. Gay has excelled in the slot for the past couple seasons, but injuries have forced him to take over a starting role on the outside where he is a bit less comfortable as a 5’10" corner.
On the other side of Gay is Brice McCain, who will be taking over for the benched Cortez Allen. Yes, you heard that right – there is a corner in the NFL that is so bad that BRICE MCCAIN took his job. So what is the McCain train up to these days? Oh, you know…just normal Brice McCain things.
Even when he is rescued by poorly thrown footballs, I still like to take every opportunity I can to show #25 getting roasted anyway.
For Brice Freakin’ McCain to actually take a starting job from someone, how bad could that someone possibly be? In Cortez Allen’s case, the answer is amazingly, appallingly, almost fascinatingly bad. I will let the GIFs speak for themselves.
In short, this Steelers secondary is in trouble. If given ample time to operate, the duo of Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins are an absolute nightmare matchup for these cornerbacks. I expect some sort of attempt from the Texans to recreate the Browns' run-heavy and play-action attack from last weekend. If that fails, there are plenty of other methods available to move the ball. Considering that Arian Foster is as stout a pass protector as they come, Bill O’Brian may be content to simply call six man protections all game and buy Fitzpatrick enough time for these receivers to inevitably get wide open. Even if Dick LeBeau attempts to overwhelm both the ground game and the six man protections with heavy run blitzes like he did against Tampa Bay, all it takes is a few easy first downs off of hot routes to discourage overzealous blitzing for the remainder of the game. Pittsburgh is still a good team that can easily beat the Texans any day of the week, but schematically speaking this is about as good a matchup as it gets for this Houston offense. Do not rule out this game turning into an epic Monday night shootout.
1 – DeAndre Hopkins reels in 6+ catches for 100+ yards and at least one touchdown.
2 – Troy Polamalu does something awesome because he is still Troy Polamalu.
3 – Ryan Fitzpatrick has his first three touchdown game of the season.
4 – Garrett Graham continues to do nothing.
5 – Derek Newton continues his current streak of not giving up a single sack all season. I still have no idea how this is happening.
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