'Butterfly effect' and its solutions

The 'butterfly effect' may explain a lot about the Steelers' problems at cornerback. Only, the problem is really with the pass rush.

The Butterfly Effect:

"A meteorologist named Edward Lorenz is credited with The Butterfly effect term: that an event as seemingly insignificant as the flapping of a butterfly's wings might create a small environmental disturbance that could become amplified to change the larger atmospheric motion, possibly even leading to a major storm in a distant place."

NFL cornerbacks live in atmospheric motion. Wide receivers consistently shoot across their skies like comets while quarterbacks, firing passes like shooting stars, pierce their psychological armor with precision timing and accuracy.

So the very last thing they need is for their job to be made more difficult – to have to suffer the ripple effects of those flapping butterfly wings that throw them off kilter, helping to create the major storm that is known in the NFL as The Big Play (and also minor tempests known as Third Down Conversions).

To date this season, in only eight games, Pittsburgh has suffered over 20 such major storms and 41 "minor tempests". And it can be argued these 2006 atmospheric disturbances should have been predicted six years ago, when those butterfly wings first began beating.

They're Here

You see, Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense is predicated on the notion that outside linebackers deliver the pass rush. It's not a blitz-based defense as some incorrectly assume. It's a blitz-based defense only when the front four pass rushers fail to get to the quarterback. So, the need to invest in 3-4 linebackers who can pass rush, cover and play the run effectively is essential if one does not want to have to blitz.

Yet, only once in the past six years have we seen the team invest a day one pick on this position – and that was a failed pick, the drafting of Alonzo Jackson three years ago, in round two of 2003.

Since then, the ripples from the lack of successful investment in the pass rush, like a seemingly insignificant push of air accelerating over the Gulf Stream, took years to arrive. But, like Drew Barrymore announced in Poltergeist: "They're here."

That Distant Place

As Tony Dungy himself said, "There's no such thing as a shut-down cornerback anymore." The best way in today's game to protect the NFL cornerback is to reduce the amount of time they need to cover those wide receivers.

Perhaps too reliant on veterans or too confident in picking up one of these 'tweeners in later rounds, Pittsburgh has failed to invest successfully in the means for the defense to accomplish this task – now the pass rush has become less effective as a result, and quarterbacks have more time to throw.

While Pittsburgh has registered 23 sacks this year, 10 of these sacks were registered by blitzing players – defensive backs and inside linebackers - players pulled from coverage duty with the hopes that doing so would not enable a big play to occur. And many of the other 13 sacks by the front four occurred as a result of blitzes as well.

In comparison, of Chicago's 21 sacks, only three came from blitzes. Of San Diego's 31 sacks, seven came from blitzes; four of Miami's 20, five of Baltimore's 23 and five of the Giants 21 – from blitzes.

In other words, while the Steelers are among the league leaders in sacks, the sacks come with an element of risk far greater than those experienced by most other defenses. Risk in depleting the coverage unit for the sake of quarterback pressure and that, when the pressure still fails to get to the quarterback (as often happens), the cornerbacks will be at an even greater disadvantage to cover an NFL wide receiver.

While some would argue it was just a matter of time, Pittsburgh is now discovering that they may have erred in their talent acquisition strategy – that the distant place where the storms land, is actually, the here and now.

2007 Outside Linebacker Prospects:

But there are answers for 2007. The 3-4 OLB prospects are becoming more abundant each year, and 2007 will be no different. It takes just one such player to change the entire dynamic of a defense. This year, Pittsburgh looks to be in solid draft position that will enable them to draft just such a player. Their choice should be from one of these four players:

Gaines Adams, DE/OLB – Clemson: Currently the best pass rushing prospect in the draft, this fearsome pass rusher needs to add some weight (he's currently 6'5", 260 pounds) for the 3-4, but has the frame to do so. He could contribute immediately as a pass rush specialist and has a non-stop motor.

Over the final month and a half of the 2005 season, he had 11.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and 16 quarterback pressures in the final six games. Adams finished the season with 29 quarterback pressures, 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss to lead Clemson in all three areas. Scouts are excited about his size, burst and long arms. The defensive end actually led the team in passes broken up (9) last season.

He's not expected to drop below the top 10 – Pittsburgh most likely would not get a shot at him.

Quentin Moses, DE/OLB – Georgia: For a while Moses and Adams were running neck and neck for the best OLB/DE rating, and some still debate who's best. The 6'5", 257 pound Moses had 11.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss last year and, like Adams, will need to add some weight to stand up to the running game as a 3-4 OLB, though unlike Adams, its not certain he has the frame to do so.

Moses is the fastest and most agile DE/OLB prospect but is less physical than Adams, and certainly less physical than Woodley. A great prospect for a team willing to sacrifice a bit of their run-stopping ability – something Pittsburgh would seem reticent to do.

LaMarr Woodley, DE/OLB – Michigan: Perhaps the most ready to contribute immediately, the 6'2", 274 pound Woodley has toughness and strength to play on the line, but the instincts and athleticism to play off the line. He could be a big time pass rusher in the NFL if given the freedom to attack the quarterback but can also play in space.

He should be available when Pittsburgh picks – he's not the complete athlete that Adams is and is a bit undersized (perhaps the biggest knock on him), but has shown steady improvement each year – seven sacks as a Junior – and has a great motor and the knack for making big plays at big times.

Victor Abiamiri, DE/OLB - Notre Dame: The fastest-riser of the four, the 6'4", 270 pound Abiamari was highly touted coming into Notre Dame but struggled until last year, unlike the prior-mentioned players. He had eight sacks and 15 tackles for losses last year.

He's very lean and – agile and quick and has shown the ability to cover in space. He will need to become stronger against the run though as he's leaner than "big" and may not have the frame to add much more weight and remain effective. He's not consistent – will play big in some games and disappear in But he has the skills to become a top pass rusher.

Other possibilities in rounds 2-3:

Lamar Hills, DE/OLB – LA Lafayette: This 6'2", 250 pound defensive end is closer to Pittsburgh's notion of drafting a less-proven prospect in the third round. He has a non-stop motor and seems to have the ability to play in space, but will have to gain some weight to play the run. Has all the talent – but hasn't proven himself against major competition and needs to bulk up. Currently a third-rounder but could move up to round two with a solid combine.

Anthony Spencer, DE/OLB – Purdue: Spencer's stock is rising – a second round prospect, he has the size at 6'3", 262 pounds to be a solid 3-4 prospect if he can continue to develop and show he has progress in his ability ot get to the quarterback.

Xzavie Jackson, DE/OLB – Missouri: Jackson is moving up into the third round. At 6'4", 260 pounds, he has the size and athleticism to play 3-4 OLB. He is raw however and needs to show he can play at full intensity each play, as he's been known to take some plays off. A solid

Stewart Bradley, OLB – Nebraska: Bradley is another third round prospect that can move up with a good combine effort. Great athlete who can cover and play the run. Question with Bradley is his pass rush skills – how quick is his first step? He gets few chances to display these skills in Nebraska.

Chris Welsh, DE/OLB – Central Florida: This 6'4", 245 pound player is less gifted athletically – perhaps a bit stiff but could rise to round three with a solid workout. Solid pass rusher off of the edge but doesn't seem to have enough athleticism to shine in Pittsburgh's system – especially if he were to gain the weight needed to play the run at the NFL level.

Pittsburgh Steelers' most likely pick – LaMar Woodley.

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