In curtain call, Steelers defense won't bow to convention

January 04, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- A few weeks ago, someone called Bud Carson, then the Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator, about a possible nickname for the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense.

"How about Steel Curtain II?" said the caller.

"Ah, I don't think so," said Carson, the architect of the Steelers' defensive teams of the 1970s that produced four Hall of Famers. "Get serious."

The present-day Steelers weren't insulted. They were flattered.

"When people start comparing you with other great defenses, that means you have arrived," said Steelers cornerback Tim McKyer. "We know we have something special here."

Not since the glory days (1975-80) have Pittsburgh fans seen such a dominating defense. But this group doesn't pack the muscle of the Steel Curtain. This defense is so quick, so athletic and so confident it defies conventional NFL wisdom.

The Steelers are undersized in positions where most teams are oversized and big where most teams are small. They blitz cornerbacks and safeties, and sometimes drop defensive linemen into zone coverage.

What you see you don't always get.

"They are so athletic, especially in the secondary, that they do things most teams are afraid to do," said Tom Bresnahan, offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, who lost, 23-10, to the Steelers this season. "It's just a very, very organized plan. You have to be strategically as well as physically prepared to play the Steelers."

The Steelers (12-4) have the second-ranked defense in the NFL, No. 1 in the AFC, allowing 270.4 yards per game. They have allowed 14.6 points per game, and their relentless pursuit and constant pressure have produced 31 turnovers and 55 sacks.

Big plays?

That's what this team is all about.

"The strength of the Steelers' defense is its big-play potential," // said Kevin Gilbride, former offensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers. "When they are really tough is when they get you in second-and-long or third-and-long situations.

That's when they become Blitzburgh."

But the Steelers, who face the Cleveland Browns in the second round of the playoffs Saturday, refuse to call it a gambling scheme. They prefer "calculated risks."

"It's not like we have 11 players coming all the time," said outside linebacker Kevin Greene. "The thing is to have a good mix of conservative as well as aggressive defense. We blitz responsibly."

The Steelers blitzed the Miami Dolphins 39 times. They blitzed Houston 34. Pittsburgh won both games.

"You always do what you feel your players do best," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who apparently will become the Carolina Panthers' first coach next season. "What we've done is try to fit the athletic ability we have into a package that gives us a chance to increase our pressure on the passer."

Inside linebackers Levon Kirkland (6 feet 1, 252 pounds) and Chad Brown (6-2, 240) were pass-rushing outside linebackers in college. Outside linebackers Greg Lloyd (6-2, 226) and Greene (6-3, 247) are excellent rushers who also can cover receivers in the flat.

Defensive ends Joel Steed (6-2, 295) and Brentson Buckner (6-2, 305) are fast enough to drop back into zone coverage over the middle when Kirkland and Brown blitz.

"Everyone on their defense can run; there is not a 'clonker' among them," said Bresnahan. "Their athletic ability gives them a lot of flexibility in their packages. They are not overly big or overpowering, but they are very precise."

Lloyd is one of the dominating forces in the league. He is second on the team in sacks with 10, and his dogged pursuit of ball carriers has resulted in 91 tackles, third-best on the team.

"Blocking that guy is a bear," said Nick Nicolau, offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts until getting fired last week. "You've always got to know where he is on the field, and his pursuit makes you waste a blocker cutting him off. Once you locate Lloyd, then you've got to know where Greene is. Then when you find Greene, you better track down [Rod] Woodson and [Carnell] Lake."

Cornerback Woodson (6-0, 200) and strong safety Lake (6-1, 210) give the Steelers one of the best nickel packages in the game. The Steelers will line both of them up inside and blitz one or both. At the same time, their remaining defensive backs are athletic enough to play man-to-man or stay in zone.

"They force you to make a lot of sight adjustments," said Nicolau. "Both Lake and Woodson are big enough to beat a blocker one-on-one and are as quick as anybody. The receivers and quarterback have only a split second to find the dead area, or they'll kill you all day."

Gilbride said: "Sometimes, though, if the receiver and quarterback read the blitz properly, you can hit them for big plays."

It hasn't happened often. Even the master of the quick release, Dan Marino, completed 31 of 45 passes for 312 yards, but scored only one touchdown in a 16-13 overtime loss.

"We have a great scheme where everyone is used to his fullest ability," said Brown. "We're not overly huge, but we hustle to the ball. We don't gamble, we just guess right."

STEEL CURTAIN II?

Their defense has led the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 12-4 record and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.

... ... ... ... Yards ... ... NFL rank

Rushing ... ... 90.8 .. .. .. 7th

Passing ... ... 179.6 ... ... 3rd

Total .. .. ... 270.4 ... ... 2nd

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