Scouting the Steelers: Defense

Pittsburgh currently rates as the number one defense in the NFL and are a formidable unit by any statistical measurement. How do the individual matchups look? Where can the Colts attack them? Brad Keller breaks it down.

Defensive Line:

With any 3-4 scheme, the three men up front set the table for the rest of the defense — the linebackers in particular — and the Steelers are no different.  As with the Patriots last week and as will be the case with the Chargers in Week 12, it all starts with a massive nose tackle in the middle for Pittsburgh.


DE Aaron Smith
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In this case, that man is Casey Hampton, who is generously listed at 325 pounds, but was placed on the PUP list during training camp due to weight issues.  Hampton plays low to the ground and is very powerful, but he also has surprising quickness and nimble feet for such a large man. 

Unlike Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth, though, it is not easy to take advantage of his inertia, because penetration is not the name of his game, as he prefers to either wear through the man (or men) in front of him, or simply take up a considerable amount of space in the middle of the line and allow the linebackers to make the play.

Hampton also gets off blocks very well and is more adept at going sideline to sideline than one would expect.  Even with Jeff Saturday involved, Charlie Johnson back at guard, and Mike Pollak improving, the Colts don't have the strength or the skill to handle Hampton and should avoid attacking him altogether.

The other option is to take Hampton out of the game, as Chris Hoke substitutes for him when the Steelers go to their nickel and dime packages, since Hampton has no pass rushing ability.  Hoke is faster and is more skilled in the areas of rushing the passer and penetration, but he is also 50 pounds lighter than Hampton (listed as 20 pounds lighter) and, without a second tackle to take up space, simply does not occupy as much real estate in the middle.

More good news for the Colts comes in the form of this week's injury report, which states that Hampton did not practice on Wednesday due to a toe injury.  Hampton has already missed three games this season.

Depending on who you talk to, the best 3-4 end in the NFL is either Richard Seymour of the Patriots, Igor Olshansky of the Chargers, or Aaron Smith of the Steelers.  Smith is an exceptional two-gap defender, a more than serviceable pass rusher, and is very stout at the point of attack. Ryan Diem will have his hands full either sealing off the edge against Smith or trying to push him to the side so that the Colts can run off guard.

Brett Keisel is the weakest link of this unit, but is backed up on his side of the field by Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison, who is an excellent run defender.  Keisel's blend of size and speed also matches up well against Tony Ugoh, who is more effective against either pure speed rushers or pure power rushers.

Simply put, the Colts, who are still the worst run offense in the league, will not be successful running to the inside or the outside against this defense.  They must therefore try to create seams and creases in the defensive front by running out of the shotgun and forcing Pittsburgh into their sub packages.

The only issue with that is that provides the Steelers linebackers more opportunities to get after Peyton Manning in the passing game.

Linebackers:

Pittsburgh currently leads the league with 32 sacks in eight games.  Of those 32 sacks, 28 have been recorded by linebackers.  Harrison's ten sacks are tied for the team lead with fellow outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, while inside linebackers James Farrior and Larry Foote have contributed two quarterback takedowns and situational linebacker — and top backup at all spots — Lawrence Timmons has four sacks with limited opportunities.


LB James Harrison
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Harrison matches up poorly against Ugoh, who plays left tackle in a similar fashion to David Diehl of the Giants.  Diehl was able to neutralize Harrison's explosiveness and strength by getting in front of him and pushing him to the outside.

The same tactic will work for Diem on the opposite side against Woodley, as neither linebacker possesses a combination of pass rushing moves — they have strong moves to the inside and strong moves to the outside, but have yet to combine the two to go inside-outside or outside-inside. 

For this reason, they can be contained, but not stopped.  They have too much talent and too much support from Smith and Keisel to not capitalize on at least some of the chances to get to Manning that Ugoh and Diem will surely give them.

This is a defense that does not bring pressure up the middle very well, so it behooves the Colts tackles to push the rush as far to the outside as possible, creating a sufficient pocket for Manning to operate from.

Ultimately, the best course of action will be to force these men to the outside, keep Joseph Addai in to block, and have him help out the tackle that needs the most assistance.  If neither needs help, the Steelers proved that they are susceptible to checkdowns to the running back on Monday night against the Redskins, as Clinton Portis caught seven passes for 73 yards.

In addition, with the possible exception of Timmons, there is not a linebacker in this group that can cover Dallas Clark man-to-man.  It is a similar situation to the Tennessee game, where a stout front seven was exposed by Clark in the passing game.  Clark needs to step up again for the Colts to stand a chance against this defense.

Clark is not alone, though, as there are also match-ups to be exploited by the wide receivers.

Secondary:

Ike Taylor was victimized repeatedly by Marvin Harrison in 2005, but this certainly is not 2005.  Harrison possesses the guile and experience to take advantage of Taylor's aggressive tendencies, but it remains to be seen if he still has the physical ability to convert on those chances.  He has been a different player since a knee injury sidelined him for most of 2007 and should actually be fairly well contained by Taylor.


CB Ike Taylor
AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

A younger Reggie Wayne has not had a great deal of success against Deshea Townsend historically, but, once again, this is not 2005.  Townsend is a fine player and a capable nickel or dime cornerback, but is miscast as a starter, due to a forearm injury to Bryant McFadden.  In all likelihood, the Steelers will put safety Troy Polamalu on Wayne and have him follow Wayne around for the entire game in an attempt to neutralize him. 

The Colts should spread Wayne wide as much as possible, then, in order to take Polamalu out of the running game and to take away his most valuable attribute — his ability to cover a lot of ground between the hashes.  If Indianapolis can isolate Polamalu on Wayne and lock him into the sidelines, he will eventually become frustrated and feel out of place, at some point finding himself out of position.

Polamalu is a very talented and intelligent player and appears to be returning to his old, dominant form, but he often suffers lapses in concentration and tries to do too much.  The Colts need to be there to strike when this happens.

If Polamalu ends up focusing on Wayne, that leaves Townsend on Anthony Gonzalez in the slot, which Townsend is perfectly suited for.  Although Townsend is a talented sub-package player, Gonzalez is more talented than the average slot receiver and should be able to position himself to get behind the linebackers and in front of Townsend and the safeties to make some plays in the middle.

Yards and first downs will not come easily, though, and big plays will be at a premium — the Steelers have yet to give up a play of 40 or more yards and have yielded only 12 plays of 20 or more yards, best in the league — so the Colts need to stay focused and disciplined and wait for Pittsburgh defense to flinch. 

Safety Ryan Clark was the difference against the Redskins deep passing attack and Santana Moss, playing 25 yards off the line of scrimmage.  Washington never took advantage of the yards available to them underneath and, ultimately, could not sustain their focus and consistently take what the Steelers game them.

Chances are that Pittsburgh will try a similar philosophy against the Colts: Shut down the run, guard against the big play, and force Peyton Manning and company to execute.

So far this season, execution and timing have been the downfall of this offense.  The big question for Sunday is whether or not it will be their downfall in Week 10 as well.

X-Factor:

Injuries.  Polamalu, Hampton, Townsend, and Woodley all missed practice on Wednesday.  Like the Colts, the Steelers are a deep team that builds through the draft according to their defensive system, according to good fits as opposed to great athletes.  However, this defense cannot sustain the loss of too many key players without suffering a setback against a potent offense like Indianapolis, especially if they get on a roll — see Ravens, Baltimore, Week 6.

The Colts will still need to do everything outlined in this article in order to be successful against this defense.  However, if the injury bug bites the Steelers for Sunday's game, those tasks become significantly easier.


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