Week 8: New England at Pittsburgh

Bill Belichick and his staff of football wizards are renown for identifying the opposition's weakness and exploiting it to the hilt. Whether we are talking about in-game adjustments or the original plan of attack, the New England Patriots often hold a tactical advantage. Certainly, Bill Cowher and the Pittsburgh Steelers know this all too well.

In 2002, the rest of the NFL exposed a major weakness in the defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The problem was clear from the very first game when the New England Patriots dismantled the Steelers. Instead of avenging the loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, Pittsburgh revealed itself as a pretender.

"I don't know if last year [2002] was a trend or the way teams decided to attack us," Bill Cowher reflected before the 2003 draft. "You have to look at, number one, who you are working with. Last year, we went to three corners a lot as part of an adjustment to not get caught up with matchups with Lee Flowers."

After Cowher stated this, the Steelers went ahead and boldly moved up in the first round to grab a replacement for Flowers, SS Troy Polamalu.

The change in scheme did not hide the personnel problems, hence the attempt to upgrade the position. But as the Steelers plug one leak, another one soon springs, at least when you face the Patriots on game day.

"Matchups are important to us," Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, said. "We ask our players not only to study the system but also the opponent, and we have heavy off-the-field demands on them."

The rest of the NFL has noticed. The New England coaching staff is one of the best in the business in exploiting a matchup advantage.

"They [Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan] do as good a job as anybody of attacking the weaknesses of the other team's system," Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy once commented.

So, who will be this year's poster child for the shortcomings of Pittsburgh's defense? OLB Clark Haggans? CB Deshea Townsend? DE Kimo Von Oelhoffen?

Despite winning two Super Bowls, Patriots QB Tom Brady is far from a complete quarterback. His game is underneath; quick passes that substitute for a poor running game. Thus, the opposing defense can cheat to that part of the field, forcing Brady away from his strength.

For a number of reasons, the Steelers are reluctant to challenge Brady in this fashion. Personnel-wise, Cowher is after an upgrade at both cornerback positions. Scheme-wise, the Steelers have shifted over the last few seasons from a predominately cover-3 alignment to the more popular cover-2.

Really, Lee Flowers as the scapegoat for the defensive problems in 2002 is a red herring. Cowher desperately wanted to land Tampa Bay safety Dexter Jackson to help ease the transition from cover-3 to the nickel cover-2 formation.

"When you watched the Super Bowl and you watched the games Tampa played in all year, it didn't matter really what they saw. They were able to play nickel versus any set," former Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said in his assessment of the defensive problems experienced during the 2002 season. "Versus regular people, two-tight end sets, three-tight end sets, they used their nickel and they were very successful with it. So nickel has to be a very versatile set for us. It has to be a versatile defensive front for us. You have to be able to stop the run and the pass and so we added a nickel back on the field, an extra cornerback, and so we feel pretty good about matching up against 3-wide sets. At the same time, if they keep a tight end on the field we've got some bigger guys out there who can stop the run also." Lewis' key statement is "It has to be a versatile defensive front for us."

The Steelers had two problems running the nickel in 2003. First, the defensive linemen struggled to generate much of a pass rush, forcing those in coverage to hold their man (or zone) in check for a long time. The second problem was defending the run, particularly towards the end of the season such as in the game against the Oakland Raiders.

By definition, the cover-2 demands four defensive backs. The safeties provide the cornerbacks with deep help. Lately, Cowher is obsessed with protecting against the big play, particularly with DeWayne Washington and Chad Scott manning the corner positions. The linebackers are charged with intermediate responsibilities in the middle of the field. What that means for the Steelers is that the OLBs such as Joey Porter and Jason Gildon are in coverage, instead of rushing the passer.

Thus, the pressure must come from the defensive front or a blitz that exposes a hole in the coverage. The defensive linemen make the nickel cover-2 go round. There is no safety help against the run and you cannot give an NFL QB all day to throw the ball, even if every receiver is charged with double coverage.

If Cowher insists on sticking with the nickel scheme against New England, Weis will offer a healthy dose of newly acquired RB Corey Dillon.

Townsend may be a good cover corner, but he gives up a lot of size against the run. In cover-2, the CBs are in press coverage and are closer to the football than either safety, if the offense decides to run.

The irony is that the Steelers may long for the days of Lee Flowers and the 8-in-the-box cover-3 defense. While the Steelers are busy trying to catch up with the aerial trends of the NFL, more versatile and innovative teams will suddenly seek to exploit the mismatches generated with a strong rushing attack.

While Kendrell Bell is running backwards instead of forwards, a shame for sure, a new hole in the Steelers defense is revealed. If Cowher is wise, he will defer to his staff, namely defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

The Steelers won't be able to hide from Belichick. Instead, they need to force Brady to beat them deep. They may give up a few big plays, but they also might generate a few of their own.

As for attacking the defense of the Patriots, the NFL took care of that. Running the ball will be difficult, but their secondary is geared to play physically. The defensive backs are getting long in the tooth and with the league cracking down on the manhandling of wide receivers; New England may suddenly find itself with a glaring weakness.

The answer from the Patriots is turning up the pass rush, but that is easier said than done. Corey Dillon is not much help if New England gets in a hole early. There may be trouble in Foxboro in 2004.

Steel City Insider Top Stories