Steelers To Unveil New Line Of Attack

Zone-blocking schemes troubled the Steelers even when they had great defenses, so Keith Butler is coming with a fresh approach.

PITTSBURGH -- Ryan Shazier returned to practice for only a bit Thursday, but it was enough for him to confidently and convincingly say "I'm playing" Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers host the San Francisco 49ers.

It's important that Shazier play because his teammate for three years at Ohio State, Carlos Hyde, was last seen running amok behind the new zone-blocking front of the 49ers.

The 49ers changed coaches, and on offense replaced Frank Gore, Michael Crabtree, two stalwart offensive linemen and installed the zone scheme. They ran it to near perfection in their opener as the 235-pound Hyde gained 168 yards on 28 carries to beat the Minnesota Vikings.

It was a bruising, physical approach by the 49ers, who lined up with two tight ends 71 percent of the time and three tight ends 50 percent of the time. The 49ers also used a fullback on 11 snaps and a fourth tight end on another snap.

Multiple TE sets have given the Steelers trouble the last couple of years because "They try to use the edges," said Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler. "They all try to use the edges and run on the edges."

And if they can't get to the edge, backs will cut up through a hole or cut it back the way Terrell Davis did in in the 1997 AFC Championship Game, the way Fred Taylor did in 2000 and 2007, the way Ray Rice did in 2009 and 2011, and the way Arian Foster did in 2011 and last year.

All of those backs rushed for over 100 -- Taylor once went over 200 -- behind zone-blocking fronts, so even the great Steelers defenses have struggled with that style of offense.

"Yup," Butler said. "But the front we played was a little bit more read front. This front is a little bit more aggressive front. We'll see how things work out."

The Steelers will unveil that aggressive front Sunday in the hope it can disrupt the flow of the outside zone schemes with defenders shooting gaps and tackling Hyde for losses.

At least that's the theory.

"We'll see," Butler said. "I've seen it happen before, so let's hope it happens again."

The key, in general, is for the defensive linemen to be more disruptive than at any time in Pittsburgh's past 25 years.

"We better be. That's all I can say," said defensive lineman Cameron Heyward. "It's something we've worked on and we've got to continue to do it."

Heyward said the Steelers have never used this type of approach in his four previous seasons with the team, "But we've got to stop this run," he said. "A lot of their game is predicated on the run. That's one of the keys to the game. Whether it's cutbacks or straight up, we've got to be able to stop it."

Does Heyward, an aggressive sort, prefer this type of approach?

"Whatever gets the job done," he said. "I'm not going to say I love doing this or I love doing that. I love winning, and right now I'm 0 and 1 so I need to get on the board with a win."

It helps that the Steelers have their entire front seven healthy for Hyde and mobile quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Shazier's not only playing, he's excited to play in what shapes up as his kind of game.

"Hey, man, I'm a linebacker," Shazier said. "I love the run game. When I see teams run, the happier I get. I like covering guys and things like that but I like running into physical teams. That shows you where you're at as a team. We feel we're a tough team and our offense runs the ball a lot. We throw the ball a lot, also, but we have a great running back and a great O-line and I feel practicing against them is preparing us for this challenge that we have this week."

It's a challenge with his old friend as the primary target, just like the old days.

"We practiced a lot, and we hit, but Coach (Urban) Meyer took care of us," Shazier said of his practices at OSU. "He didn't want the ones (first teams) killing each other, so a lot of times when a big collision was about to happen he blew the whistle right before it could cause some damage."

Not this time.

"Yeah, yeah," Shazier said with a smile. "Nobody's gonna blow the whistle this time, and I'm really excited about that."

NOTES -- The Steelers practiced again Thursday without cornerbacks Cortez Allen (knee) and Brandon Boykin (groin). When the Steelers need a third cornerback Sunday, it'll likely be newcomer Ross Cockrell. "He’s done good things in practice," said Butler. "Every time Antonio Brown gets up the field, so does he. It’s encouraging me that he has the confidence to work against the best. We’ll see how he does."


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