AbsolutAnalysis: The Myths of the 3-4

It seems that the majority of experts give the Seahawks little chance to exploit Pittburgh's complex 3-4 defense with its own multi-faceted offense. Matt Lathrop, Seahawks.NET's "Xs and Os Guru", saw another side of the matter after watching the AFC Championship game in this this exclusive, in-depth, Super Bowl preview.

The numbers that best describe how the Steelers won this game: 10-16. That’s Pittsburgh’s 3rd down conversion stat. I know at least half of the failed attempts came in the second half when Denver’s wheels had already come off. Early in the game, Denver was trying to beat the Steelers passing game with the blitz, but ended up killing themselves by doing so. The Broncos were relatively successful on 1st and 2nd downs, but the Steelers were smart enough to counter the blitz with increased protection. The strangest thing about this was that Roethlisberger was actually more composed and more successful versus a blitz than against a standard 4 man rush. Against a four man rush, Roethlisberger was more likely to break the pocket sooner and tends to throw some ill advised passes. However, when the Broncos blitzed, and they did plenty, Roethlisberger looked comfortable and didn’t seem to be hesitant making this throws.

As I watched the Broncos vs. Steelers, I kept notes on each possession, but before we go through them, I want to take a look at the Seahawks run game versus an odd front.

The first thing I want to address is the concept that Tobeck won’t be able to handle the Steelers NT Casey Hampton. If you are a reader of our forum, you will know that Steelers fans are very confident in this match up. The thing is that our guards have just as much to do with running the ball against Hampton as our center does. (Unless you’re that one Steelers fan who claimed that, “in zone blocking, you block the man in front of you.” Sorry, had to get that off my chest.)

When the Hawks run an inside zone or iso, which they do a lot of, Tobeck will often end up being responsible for a LB, and a guard will be assigned to pick up the NT. Here’s an example of a play the Seahawks have run this year against an odd front, which requires Tobeck to tag the NT and move to the backside LB while Hutch takes over for the center:

Tobeck is going to step to the play side as he snaps the ball, and engage the NT while keeping his eyes on the LB they are responsible for. Hutch will take a small drop step while reaching towards the NT. He and Tobeck will double team him for a quick time before Tobeck leaves the NT and fits up on the pursuing LB. This is when Hutch fights his way to take over the NT. It may sound awkward, but if you keep an eye on the center and guards on Sunday, you’ll see it’s actually quite fluid when done properly. When people talk about consistency along the O-line, these are the kinds of things that are developed over time playing together. The problems Casey Hampton can create are obvious. When you hear about a nose tackle forcing double teams, this is what you’re looking at. If he can keep the player responsible for the linebacker from sliding off of him easily, then it’s a good day for the linebackers.

Hawks fans know that we run a lot out of a 3-receiver set. Here is what it has looked like when we run a similar play from a formation with no tight end.

If the Steelers want to run a reduced front and give a different look, not a whole lot changes up front:

Of course, there are times when Tobeck will have to take Hampton 1 on 1. Here’s an outside zone, where our tackle and guard perform the same technique as the guard and center did on the inside zone.

Notice that Tobeck is going to be locked onto the NT, with the backside guard and tackle tracking up field to find the first color that gets in their way. This type of plays takes a bit longer to develop, as the tackle has to run with the DT a bit more laterally before moving up a level to his linebacker.

Here is a variation of this play you might see out of an open formation, where Tobeck might get some help from Chris Gray.

Last week I took a look at plays that gave Shaun Alexander different options on where to take the play. The blocking is a bit different up front, with all the linemen blocking downhill to the play side. Instead of combo-ing to the back side, each lineman blocks to the play side, and Shaun will have a certain read on where to take the ball, usually a LB. He can follow Strong, cut it back a gap, or bend it all the way back across the formation.

Ok, now that we have that covered, let’s take a look at the Steelers – Broncos Championship Game.

Steelers Offense

Early in the game, the Broncos came out wih guns blazing, bringing pressure from all over. However, unlike Indianapolis the previous week, the Steelers weren’t scared to beat the blitz with protection. With the extra protection, Roethlisberger was patient enough to let his receivers work their routes underneath the Denver secondary and connect with them for 1st downs. Their first drive ends with a 47 yard field goal, but their good fortune shouldn’t go without mention. Roethlisberger threw up a prayer at one point that was nearly intercepted, and an overturned fumble allowed them to keep the drive going and put up the first points of the game. At this point it looks like Pittsburgh still has everything rolling in their favor, but that’s what you get when you play high effort football.

Heading into the 2nd quarter, the Broncos were still leaning on the blitz to stop the Steelers offense, but the effects were minimal. Pittsburgh is comfortable keeping extra protection for Roethlisberger while letting their receivers work against a secondary that has little to no help underneath due to the blitz. So far Denver’s secondary looks like they are in over their heads in coverage and the Steelers are having little trouble working to the sidelines and finding seams down field. I am impressed by how vertical the Steelers are throwing against the blitz, but I am also a big fan of protecting your QB and letting your receivers work to beat the blitz. On one play in particular, the Steelers keep two extra players in to protect on 3rd and 9 against a heavy Denver blitz. Roethlisberger doesn’t panic, and finds a receiver working a nice double move against Champ Bailey who gets caught looking in the backfield and gets burned for a TD. Again, it wasn’t the best throw by Roethlisberger, but it shows that he doesn’t worry or play with hesitation.

Well into the 2nd quarter, Pittsburgh isn’t running the ball all that well. They don’t look particularly fast against an aggressive Denver defense, and though they start to get big runs by keeping the Broncos defense on the field, they still have averaged 2.7 ypc twice this postseason.

Editorial note: I think at this point of the game, Phil Simms is ready to change his name to Phil Roethlisberger, holy cow.

More of the same continues until the half. Denver insists on blitzing for most of the quarter, and Pittsburgh has no trouble beating it by working underneath the Denver secondary who has been folding under the pressure of picking up the slack of blitzing linebackers.

Eventually Denver started using a standard 4 man rush, and Roethlisberger had a harder time finding someone to throw to right away. He was more apt to break the pocket and scramble without a blitz, and Denver was doing a pretty good job of getting them to 3rd down situations. But, they couldn’t stop them on 3rd down. Once again, Denver gives up a 3rd and 9 in the red zone to a leaked HB right in the middle of the field. All it takes is one 3rd down stop to change the course of this game, but the Bronco defense was completely inept on 3rd downs in the first half. Even after forcing Roethlisberger to scramble, he was still able to find a breakdown in the middle of the field and dump a pass off to a RB for a first down.

As the half nears its end, and the Jake Plummer regression continues, Pittsburgh tears off a couple big runs, and it’s obvious that the Broncos defense needs a rest. The feet of the DL stop moving as well, and it’s evident how much slower they’ve gotten over the course of the 2nd quarter. To end the half, Denver rushes 4 men and Roethlisberger takes off on a scramble. Eventually, he throws a very ill advised pass, but it manages to go right through two defenders for a touchdown. Yeah, they kind of lucked out on this one. But I guess when you let a receiver behind you in the end zone, you deserve to get scored on.

On the first drive of the 2nd half, Denver forces Pittsburgh into a 3rd and 6 after a failed run. Just before the snap I looked at the formation and said to myself “there’s no way Denver is going to bring pressure off the slot with the safety over top two yards past the marker…yeah, they did.” Another 3rd down conversion. The Broncos started to find something that was working towards the end of the half, but their offense just couldn’t give them a hand. I don’t know why they went back to the blitz when the Steelers are keeping extra protection and picking your secondary apart.

The Steelers got hot running the ball for a few power plays. They were able to get bigger chunks of yardage by bringing backside linemen around to the point of attack and out man the Broncos defense. That’s something to keep in mind Sunday if the Steelers have trouble running the ball early. However, Denver forced them into a 3rd and long, and brought a 4 man rush. Big Ben broke the pocket and, sound the bells, forced Pittsburgh to punt. Which was downed at Denver’s own 2 yard line. It’s just not their day.

For the rest of the quarter, and the half for that matter, the formula stayed the same. Denver backed off the blitz, and Roethlisberger didn’t have such an easy time moving down the field. He broke the pocket quicker and wasn’t able to find his receivers as easily. But then Denver brought 6 men and Roethlisberger hit his WR Wilson for another deep out for a first down. The Steelers finished the quarter without finding its groove on the ground and not being able to run the ball well. Fortunately for them, the passing game remained patient and sound versus the Broncos blitz and helped them move down the field and wear out the Denver defense.

Steelers Defense

I tuned into the game a bit late, and the first Bronco possession I saw set the table for the rest of the day. The Steelers brought 5 men, the three DL and two extra rushers off the edges. There is nothing schematically special about this blitz, just a high effort rush by the Steelers D. The Broncos use a TE to block OLB Joey Porter, which just sounds like a bad idea. Porter has no trouble batting him away and getting to the QB, while pressure from the other edge comes when the Broncos RT has trouble catching up to the blitz coming over a releasing TE. Plummer is hit and fumbles the ball away. Again, nothing special on paper, but it turned into something special by the effort and energy of the players executing it.

Moving into the 2nd quarter, the story is strangely similar to when the Steelers had the ball. When Denver has ample protection for Plummer, he is able to find receivers open downfield. So far, there hasn’t been anything stunning from the Steelers scheme-wise, they just appear to be a very sound football team with talented, high effort players that execute their assignments. One thing I have noticed is that Denver’s play action series hasn’t been effective. Protection off it has been poor since Pittsburgh’s blitzing philosophy is to get to the QB, there are other guys there to stop the run.

Denver gets the ball back, with a chance to answer. The Steelers bring 4 men and Plummer tosses a pass that may as well have been left handed. Steelers ball, and the offense puts the defense against a wall.

Coming out of the half, Denver gave up points and was eventually pinned to their own goal line once again. From the two, Pittsburgh brings some pressure and forces Plummer into some very poor situations. After running a play fake – which I somehow don’t think the Steelers will bite on from the 2 – Plummer is hurried again and throws up a pass that falls incomplete. The other two plays saw Plummer check down to his running backs and dump the ball off to them. The bad thing about this is that they were in the end zone. To be honest, I kind of enjoyed watching Denver tank it. I think we all know why.

So far, it really looks like the Steelers offense has made this game for their defense. They’ve put all the pressure onto the Denver offense and have given their defense plenty of rest. At this point in the game, Denver is falling apart and not playing great football. As we get closer to the 4th quarter, Denver’s protection steps up and manages a few nice plays downfield. Versus a 4 man zone blitz, the Broncos are able to get into the end zone and keep their chances alive.

The rest of the game saw Denver’s pass protection start to shut down. Even though they were using enough players, Denver had started to panic and look for big plays. This led to missed assignments and more pressure on Plummer, causing him to scramble and take poor care of the football. Pittsburgh has continued to play disciplined, aggressive football while Denver’s wheels fell off due to the execution and outstanding effort of the Steelers defenders.

After watching this game, the schemes the Steelers defense ran didn’t live up to the media hype they've gotten. The players, however, have. When it comes down to it, it wasn’t the defensive scheme that beat the Broncos, it was the players that outplayed Denver. It isn’t like Harry Potter is running the Steelers defense – it’s a good, sound scheme, with very good coaches and great players. I know a lot of people think the Seahawks' offense will look like a Benny Hill sketch against the Steelers 3-4, but as long as they execute like they have all year and use proper protection, unlike many teams have, it’s going to be a great game.

If you have any questions or comments please email me. If you don’t like it or want to flame about the column, email my boss.

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