GB Play Study: Beating Base 3-4

Eric Huber takes us inside the playbook to examine how the Packers can take advantage of star safety Troy Polamalu and beat the Steelers' base 3-4 defense.

Welcome to the first Super Bowl installment of Packers Play Study. The idea is to get the uneducated, average and even highly knowledgeable fans thinking about formations, audibles and the reasons why certain plays are called.

In this study, I'm taking a look at the Green Bay Packers' big-game counterpart, the Pittsburgh Steelers, their base 3-4 defense and how the Green and Gold can beat it using play-action. Let's draw it up.

Depicted below is the Steelers' base defense.

Like the Packers' version, linebacker play is critical to this defense's success, and the Steelers have four really good ones for whom defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau puts a lot of trust. However, I believe the key piece to this defense is strong safety Troy Polamalu, as noted by the yellow boxed defender. Why?

Polamalu is the Steelers' best tackling defensive back and loves to chase runners, so he'll often creep up to keep opposing offenses guessing on suspected rushing downs. The problem, though, is that he is a sucker for the play-action fake, something that Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is very good at executing.

After evaluating some Steelers' tape from the regular season, I saw this formation quite a bit, sometimes with Polamalu flipped to free safety Ryan Clark's side of the field. At the same time, though, Polamalu often was exposed, as was the case against the Patriots at a critical point of the third quarter when he cheated up and bit on a play fake to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Quarterback Tom Brady was then able to find wide receiver Brandon Tate on a 45-yard deep post over the top of the safety.

Solving Polamalu is going to be the key ingredient to the Packers having any kind of success against this base 3-4 defense. If they can sucker him up to the box by effectively mixing in a few run plays early, and utilize play-action throughout the game, they may eventually hit a big one, much like the Patriots did in mid-November.

How? Below is a typical run formation that seems to be brutally effective when quarterback Rodgers goes play-action, and the breakdown of it is explained below.

The quarterback takes a four-step drop while faking the handoff. The fullback goes through the A-gap to make the safety bite. The running back follows behind but stops at the line to help pass protect.

The flanker (green dot) is the primary target if the strong safety (Polamalu) plays deep. If the safety creeps and the quarterback anticipates he'll take a step forward for run support, route No. 2 (dotted line) becomes the hot route for all receivers and is hopefully deployed. If not, then the play is run with the split end and flanker running 10- to 15-yard stop routes. The quarterback (Rodgers) will then find the slot receiver on the 12-yard post either in front of or behind the strong safety (Polamalu), depending on his movement.

The ideal situation is for the quarterback (Rodgers) to loft the ball in the deep zone that hopefully will open up between the cornerback and strong safety (Indicated by the big "X" in the Steelers' base 3-4 formation above) and similar to last week's game against the Bears.

Either play should prove to be effective against the Steelers' defense, especially if the running game is somewhat potent. It will be up to Rodgers to anticipate correctly.

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Eric Huber is a contributing writer for E-mail him at

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