Defensive line: Time to shift gears?

Here's how to turn an above-average secondary into one that will be remembered throughout the ages: Pressure the quarterback with the front four.

In the last Super Bowl, Tampa Bay's secondary – made up of a late second, three thirds and a fourth-round draft pick – intercepted four passes, returned two for touchdowns and hoisted the game MVP trophy all because it could sit back and benefit from the pressure of an active front four that sacked Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon five times.

The key, obviously, was the Bucs' front four. Since it was getting enough pressure, the team didn't have to blitz very often and the now-famous secondary could cherry pick. Even linebacker Derrick Brooks returned an interception for a touchdown.

Research shows the Bucs blitzed on only eight of the Raiders' 55 snaps, or less than 15 percent of the time. Contrast that with the mad blitzing of the Pittsburgh Steelers and it's easy to understand why the latter's secondary is perceived as a weak spot. If the pressure doesn't get there, particularly when rushing more than four players, the secondary is exposed. The Steelers' secondary was exposed most often on third down and long last season, a situation when offenses max protect and blitzing becomes extremely risky.

Certainly, the coming trend in the NFL is the Bucs' approach, but in the Steelers' case that would mean a radical departure from their free-wheeling, 3-4 zone-blitz schemes. Coach Bill Cowher, a leading proponent of the 3-4, would have to first find a legitimate pass rusher for a four-man line, but considering how easily he's found rushers for a five-man line, it's unlikely Cowher would invest the high pick required to switch gears.

Third Round – Osi Umenyiora (6-3 1/8, 278, 4.68 campus) played at Division I-AA Troy State and would represent an attempt to catch lightning in a bottle. A first- or second-round investment for low-grade, big-school ends such as Kenny Peterson or Michael Haynes would be a risk for a team that's probably not set to fully embrace a 4-3. A third-round pass-rusher, however, might be worth the risk. While the 21-year-old, London-born Umenyiora lacks football instincts and many of the basic fundamentals of technique, he's extremely athletic and productive. After struggling through his junior season at nose tackle, Umenyiora moved to end last year and had 16 sacks against a representative schedule to rank second nationally behind Terrell Suggs. Umenyiora also was credited with a whopping 43 quarterback hurries. To go along with the outstanding 40 time at his pro day, Umenyiora's vertical jump measured 38 inches.

Fourth Round – Back in Cowher's real world of the 3-4, the prospect of replacing starting right end Kimo von Oelhoffen looms. The 32-year-old underwent shoulder surgery in February and is scheduled to earn $1.75 million in base salary a year after recording only three sacks. In an attempt to recapture the Blitzburgh heyday of pass-rushing end Ray Seals, Cowher may be looking past second-teamer Rodney Bailey and drafting from among the following group of solid tackle/end types: Kenny King (6-2¾, 281, 4.98, 35 VJ) of Alabama, Jarrett Johnson (6-2 5/8, 284, 5.08) of Alabama and Matt Walters (6-4½, 272, 4.76 campus, 30 reps) of Miami. If Steelers line coach John Mitchell has a say, the Tide will roll north next week.

Fifth Round – James Lee (6-4½, 327, 4.91) of Oregon State was the heaviest defensive tackle at the combine but also one of the quickest. His ability to stuff the run and take on blockers to free up linebackers has never been in question, and his workout time offers pass-rush promise. Now he just needs someone to light a fire under him. The promise of big money has a way of doing that sometimes.

Late Rounds – LaWaylon Brown (6-4, 300, 5.12 campus, 30 reps) of Oklahoma State is a veteran two-gapper; Roy Attieh (6-1 5/8, 305, 4.92 campus) of Kent State can play the nose (Steelers were one of five teams at his workout); Davern Williams (6-3, 309, 5.25 campus, 37 VJ, 33 reps) transferred from Auburn to Troy State and certainly helped free up Umenyiora; Jacques Cesaire (6-2, 295, 5.04 campus) is Southern Connecticut State's finest; and Kris Dielman (6-3¼, 275, 5.08 est.) played only one season on the defensive line for Indiana after playing tight end and receives rave reviews from Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El.

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Jim Wexell
Steel City

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