"We had a play call where we were basically on a max blitz. Kurt (Warner) had to get it out, so he had to throw a quick slant in or out, and I guessed on in and basically just shifted out, flowed out, and he threw it straight to me."
- James Harrison
It was what defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called “the greatest single defensive play in Super Bowl history.” And it came when the Steelers’ star outside linebacker picked instincts over assignment.
It’s easy to look at a play where the player succeeds by improvising as a failure of scheme and playcalling. But LeBeau’s responsibility is just notes on a page. The quality of the performance is always dependent upon the musicians.
In the 19th century, ragtime combined African and European musical traditions to form the roots of black American popular music. Its rigid style was composer-driven, and it gradually contributed to the evolution of jazz music, in which improvisation became a key element. Ragtime faded into the background. And while it can still be heard today, it’s no different than what was played more than a century ago. Meanwhile, the adaptable, unpredictable nature of musician-driven jazz kept it vital and relevant.
As with jazz, on-field improvisation can not only breathe new life into a familiar defensive scheme, but also make clear the path for adaptation.
Recent additions to the Steelers defense seem to have just that in mind. Jarvis Jones, Shamarko Thomas and Ryan Shazier all were centerpieces of their college defenses, all were effective in the box as well as in coverage, and all played in multiple spots to take advantage of or prevent mismatches.
Jones is likely the most controversial of these. Critics suggest his college production was bloated by a scheme designed around giving Jones the best opportunity to succeed. And the scheme was certainly designed with him as the focal point.
But it’s not as though coaches at Georgia just picked Jarvis to be the beneficiary of this largesse at random. With NFL draftees Brandon Boykin, DeAngelo Tyson, Alec Ogletree, John Jenkins, Shawn Williams, Sanders Commings, Cornelius Washington, and Baccari Rambo on the roster, it’s not as if there was no other NFL talent to build around. Washington, for example, is 6'4" and 265 pounds, with 34-inch arms, a 4.55 40 time, 36 reps on the bench, a 39-inch vertical, and a 10'8" broad jump. Physically, he’s everything you look for in a pass rusher.
So either Randolph and Mortimer Duke had a $1 bet that they could take a no-talent scrub and make him a star OLB while at the same time taking a physical marvel and burying him so much that they got 0.5 sacks out of him in 14 games as a senior, or Jones earned the spot because he had the instincts to take advantage of the opportunities.
Not that this necessarily made the pick a wise one, because instincts only provide results when paired with requisite athleticism, which is the main criticism of Jones.
But in a changing game in which Ben Roethlisberger clamors for, and is given, increasing opportunity to make on-field adjustments, the counter to that will be defensive players with the instincts to respond in kind. Jones strikes me as that sort of player.
And if you view Jones that way, the Shazier pick seems, in retrospect, like a logical necessity. He was basically everything for Ohio State that Jones was for Georgia, but where Jones’ athleticism was in doubt, Shazier’s was perhaps the best in the draft. Where Jones was pushing 24, Shazier has yet to hit 22.
Like predecessor Lawrence Timmons in his early years, Shazier’s instincts have a fair amount of room for growth. But it’s less important that they always be right than that he plays them with conviction. After all, if Harrison had guessed Warner would look for an out route, the Steelers probably have only five Lombardi trophies. The mentality is essential. The rest comes with work, and sometimes luck.
Thomas wasn’t a first-round pick like Jones and Shazier. But to hear Carnell Lake tell it, he was only a couple of inches shy of that. And like Shazier, he’s a top-of-the-line athlete. His job description at Syracuse might best be described as “everything,” making him a fitting potential heir to Troy Polamalu.
The Steelers’ defense has been criticized in recent years for being old and slow, and while both were true to an extent, perhaps the bigger problem was the lack of players who could envision opportunity and exploit it, and intuit weakness on their own side of the ball and mitigate it. If it were youth and speed they coveted, a nearly 24-year-old linebacker with a 4.9 40 time is a bizarre choice at No. 17 overall. Instead, they’ve keyed on players whose style is about more than just fulfilling assignments. The picks have been not just great players, but bandleaders with the ability to stay faithful to the music while taking it in their own directions.
As this trio develops, it should result in better, more varied on-field adjustments and less predictability. And the more they do what’s least expected, the greater the payoff will be in the big plays the defense has been missing.