The Green Bay Packers won't be playing in the Super Bowl, but fans can get a glimpse of the hoped-for future during today's championship game.
With Dom Capers hired as defensive coordinator, Kevin Greene hired to coach outside linebackers and Darren Perry picked to guide the safeties, the Packers obviously are hoping that "Blitzburgh" has moved about 500 miles to the west.
Capers was hired to be Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator in 1992, setting in motion a 17-year run of defensive dominance. Joining him on that staff were first-year head coach Bill Cowher and an assistant named Dick LeBeau, who is coordinator of the Steelers defense that will try to stop the high-flying Cardinals today. Together, they created the zone-blitzing version of the 3-4 defense that, more than any defense in the NFL, has stood the test of time.
"When I joined Bill Cowher's staff at Pittsburgh," Capers recalled during his introductory news conference last month, "we brought a lot of elements from (New Orleans, which ran an aggressive 3-4 scheme) and Bill had been the defensive coordinator at Kansas City and they'd had Derrick Thomas outside rushing. So, we kind of combined the philosophies, and it's kind of interesting how the zone pressure thing started because we had some elements early, but we were having a hard time getting pressure on the quarterback, so it was out of necessity that we tried to do a few things to get more pressure on the quarterback, and then that kind of just evolved."
Pressure is the name of the game, and the 3-4 defense is all about bringing it. Three of the top four individuals in sacks play in a 3-4, ranging from Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, a first-round draft pick, to Miami's Joey Porter, a wily veteran at 31, to Pittsburgh's James Harrison, an undrafted free agent who the Steelers cut twice and stashed on their practice squad for two years. Harrison and the Steelers' other outside linebacker, LaMarr Woodley, led all NFL duos with 28 sacks. That's one more than the Packers had as a team.
Dallas and Pittsburgh were the team leaders in sacks, and the Jets (seventh), Dolphins (eighth), Ravens (11th), Cardinals (14th) and Patriots (14th) ranked in the top half. Of the last four teams left standing this postseason, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Arizona run 3-4 defenses.
As an offensive-minded head coach, Green Bay's Mike McCarthy knows how important it is to protect the quarterback. So, he knows the other side of the equation, too.
"I think on defense it's the same way. You need to get after the quarterback on defense," McCarthy said.
While fads come and go in the NFL, Pittsburgh's "Blitzburgh" approach has stuck. This season, the Steelers ranked first in total defense (by a whopping 24 yards) and first in points (by 21). In 2007, the Steelers ranked first in defense and second in points.
When Cowher was coach from 1992 through 2006, the Steelers boasted the top-ranked defense twice, had seven top-four defenses and finished outside the top 10 only three times. His worst defense? It was his last defense. That unit ranked 13th, but led the league in turnovers and finished second in points.
The hallmark of the Steelers' defense is the zone blitz. While the outside linebackers are frequent blitzers, anyone can blitz at any time, from the inside linebackers to the safeties to the cornerbacks. In all, 12 players had sacks for the Steelers and 41 of their 51 sacks came from linebackers or defensive backs.
To help cover the gaps in coverage, defensive linemen drop back. Blitzing in and of itself isn't a winning formula. It's the unpredictability of those blitzes that make it work. The Cardinals and their quarterback, Kurt Warner, know they will be blitzed today. But can they stop it?
"That's why you have to have a combination of things where you can disguise, you can show pressure and come out of it," Capers said. "You try to hit them with pressure when they are not expecting it because if they are expecting you to pressure every down then they are going to just sit in there and protect. To me, that's part of the chess match of the game."
Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.
Reason to watch the Super Bowl: Blitzburgh
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