Breaking Down the Defense: the Browns Game

Don't look now, but the Steelers are beginning to play dominating defense. While Ben Roethlisberger and the offense have received most of the attention lately, the Steelers' defense has quietly established itself as one of the best in the league.

In terms of stats, the Steelers are the league's top ranked defense based on yards allowed. The Steelers also lead the NFL with 22 takeaways and a plus-11 turnover ratio. In the past eight quarters, opponents have managed just one touchdown, that coming in garbage time against the Browns.

No Joke Hoke

This week I broke down the film focusing on the defense and particularly on Chris Hoke and the defensive line. During the preseason, Hoke showed some flashes as a potential future starter. Against the Browns, Hoke performed surprisingly well. So well, that I would say he is establishing himself as the heir apparent to Kimo von Oelhoffen at right defensive end.

As a nose tackle, the strength of Hoke's game is his ability to rush the QB. Hoke is surprisingly active and nifty for a big man, utilizing his hands and a non-stop motor to make plays. Compared to Casey Hampton, Hoke is clearly the better pass rusher. On the flip-side, Hoke's biggest weakness as a NT is Hampton's biggest strength – anchoring the line against the run. On occasion, Hoke will get turned around or let an offensive lineman get under his pads and push him completely out of the play. That is why Hoke is a better fit at DE. However, overall it looks like the Steelers will get by just fine this season with Hoke starting in place of Hampton.

The Non-Dominators

No Steeler defender stood out as dominating against the Browns. That being the case, perhaps it's more productive to talk about who wasn't dominating. At the top of that list would be Larry Foote. There are really no comparisons to be made between Larry Foote and Kendrell Bell. Bell is a surprisingly strong and aggressive linebacker. Larry Foote is not big, physical, or aggressive and he can easily be pushed off balance and out of a play. LeBeau's scheme is the only reason a quick Larry Foote has been making plays.

Number 2 on the non-dominating list would be Clark Haggans. Clark was handled most of the game by Browns' TE Steve Heiden and made very little impact throughout the game. After the season, you can bet that Dick LeBeau will be looking for a playmaker to replace Haggans at outside linebacker. The fact that James Harrison can have the type of game he had against the Browns demonstrates that the 3-4 is geared for outside linebackers to make plays. So, when the outside linebackers aren't consistently making plays, it's a problem.

That's not to take anything away from James Harrison who played like veteran rather than a first time starter. Surprisingly, the only noticeable difference between Joey Porter and James Harrison is Harrison's lack of speed. Lack of speed is the only reason we should expect Harrison's first start to be his last.

The Return of Blitz-berg

Rather than dominating performers, what you really see on defense is just a group of fast, aggressive players maximizing their talent in a great scheme. Though more speed in the secondary is a big improvement, Dick LeBeau is clearly the primary reason for the improved play of the defense over recent seasons.

In the last few games you can tell that opposing QB's come into the game feeling rushed to make quick decisions with the ball. That in itself is leading to better defensive play. Apart from the array of blitz' and their timely use, LeBeau's best move as a coach came during the off-season when he smartly realized that Porter and Haggans are not capable of consistently applying a pass rush. LeBeau's solution has been to create confusion along the offensive line and to utilize the talent at inside linebacker to pick up the slack.

Though James Farrior is getting pro bowl consideration this season, he is really the exact same player he was last year. The only difference with Farrior is that Dick LeBeau is featuring him. The inside linebacker cross blitz has become the Steelers' bread and butter play to generate a pass rush this season. In this blitz, all four linebackers' roles are basically reversed, with the inside linebackers generating the pass rush while Porter and Haggans slide to cover and defend the run. This blitz has often provided a wide open path to the QB because the offensive linemen simply don't have time to react.

With fast and aggressive players like Farrior and Bell on the inside, LeBeau is playing to this team's strengths. Though it seems simple, it is notable because it is something that Tim Lewis was never able to do. A botched Tim Lewis plan was to make Kendrell Bell a pass rushing outside linebacker. LeBeau's plan is much simpler - just blitz Bell from his normal position.

The scary part about the defense is that it should continue to improve. Young players like Polamalu, Hope, Colclough and Taylor are all continuing to get valuable experience. Chad Scott will soon return, and Kendrell Bell is just about ready to reclaim his starting job. When at full speed, expect a featured Kendrell Bell to be an impact player again. Just like James Farrior.

The Formula Man™

Catch the Formula Man right here on every Pittsburgh Steelers game day.

The Formula Man is Back Formula: Last week the Formula Man was 2 for 2. Citing the "You Had to Say it, didn't you" Formula, the Formula Man said to expect Gerard Warren's comments to lead to inspired play and a win by the Steelers. "I think a lot of things happened, obviously, that inspired us today to come out and play a good football game," said Roethlisberger. "We played inspired on both sides of the ball." Said Alan Faneca: "With what he said, how would it not fire us up?" Like Ben Roethlisberger, the Formula Man now has his own undefeated streak going – the Formula Man is now 1-0 in predicting Steeler victories. The Formula Man also cited the "Taking it to the House" Formula and said to watch for fast Willie Parker to break one. Though Parker didn't take it the distance, he did break one of his few carries for 24 yards.

The Kendrell Bell Sack Formula: Kendrell Bell + Dick LeBeau's Cross Blitz = Sack. While Kendrell Bell has looked a little rusty at times in the last few games, at times he has also looked like a dominating performer. Watch for Bell to get his first sack of the season on Dick LeBeau's favorite blitz – the inside linebacker cross blitz.

The "Taking it to the House" Formula, Part 2: Fast RB + Gaping Holes = Touchdown. With Duce Staley out of action again and the Bus in danger of overheating, expect Verron Haynes and Willie Parker to both get their share of touches. The Formula Man believes that Willie Parker should see the majority of those touches, but fears that Dick Hoak does not agree. Regardless, even with just a few carries, the Formula Man likes the odds of Parker breaking off a long run. Oh, the fact that the Bengals are ranked 30th in the NFL against the run, that doesn't hurt either.

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