Bud Dupree (48) gets ready to lay out Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore during the second quarter in the AFC Wild Card playoff football game at Heinz Field. (Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports)
The Patriots aren’t going up against the Steel Curtain Sunday in their mission to get to a record ninth Super Bowl. They are going up against a different type of Steeler defense – a type that’s been around for the better part of three decades.
And it’s a defense that’s been getting better and more aggressive as the season has progressed.
No team had more sacks in the second half of the season than the Steelers, who recorded 30 in the final nine games of the regular season. Their eight sacks against the Browns kicked off a seven-game winning streak to end the season. They continued it in the wild card round against the Dolphins with five sacks of Matt Moore.
They had just one against the Chiefs Sunday night but it was one by the ageless James Harrison. The Texans had the top-ranked defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed but the way the Steelers are attacking the quarterback, they might be the most fearsome defense left in the playoffs.
“Yes, most players are playing at a very high level right now, and seem to get better as the year goes on,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday.
“They’ve always had an element of those experienced veteran players really helping those younger players come along, and learn the system, and learn what it means to play the way they play in their scheme and their system. I think those are two good examples right there of guys that [are] much different in terms of their age and experience, but both physical guys, both very difficult to handle in the running game, set the edge in the running game and they do a good job of trying to knock people back.
“And then [they] can create pressure on the quarterback, whether it’s with speed or power, and they do it both. So, they fit into their scheme nicely, they’ve always done a great job of integrating young players into their scheme, because they know very specifically what they’re looking for. I think those two guys are a good example of what they’ve had for a long time and how they develop these young guys to play really well and integrate them into their system and into their defense.”
When the Steelers added Kevin Greene to the likes of Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, Jason Gildon and Chad Brown in the mid-90s under Bill Cowher, “Blitzburgh” was born. In the 2000s, there was Joey Porter, James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote and a young James Harrison out of Kent State.
Now, the Steelers have bookended the 38-year-old Harrison (in his second stint in Pittsburgh) with 23-year-old Bud Dupree, the 6-foot-4 beast out of Kentucky that laid out Moore with that devastating hit to the jaw in the wild card round. Throw in Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, and you have a group that is just as imposing as the group in the mid-90s.
“They have a lot of guys that can do different things,” McDaniels said. “Their down guys are not just run stoppers. [Stephon] Tuitt is a very active guy, and he’s created a lot of pressure on the quarterback from the spots that he plays. They’ll pressure people with pressures, so with linebacker blitzes, so guys like Timmons and Shazier and those types of guys, they all have sacks, they all have quarterback pressures. And then the edge rushers, the Harrison’s and the Dupree’s, those guys, I mean they’re constantly involved in the rush as well. It’s not just one guy; that’s the biggest thing.
“It’s the entire front, plus you’re going to get secondary pressures, their nickel back, their safeties are all involved in the blitz packages, which has kind of been a hallmark of their defense over many years. Those guys are going to get hits on the quarterback, and you’re going to have to pick them up in blitz pick-up and make sure that you don’t give them any easy plays there, too.
“So, you can’t really focus your attention on one or two guys. That’s not really what this defense is built on. They’re going to come at you in waves. Different people are going to come on different plays, and you’ve got to be ready to handle them all. And they’re all physical, athletic and they know exactly how to execute in their system and in their scheme. They’re extremely well-coached; [defensive coordinator] coach [Keith] Butler does a great job. I know [head coach] coach [Mike] Tomlin has always done a great job with them. We have a ton of respect for them, and like I said before, this is going to be a great challenge this week.”
This Pittsburgh defense has evolved over the years from the “Steel Curtain” of the 1970s that featured the most famous 4-3 personnel of all-time. On the line it was L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White on the outside and Joe Greene and Ernie Holmes on the inside. Behind them were Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Andy Russell.
For perspective, Bill Belichick reminded everyone Monday where the seeds for dominant Pittsburgh defensive dominance were sewn. It was Belichick, in his first year in Cleveland in 1991, who coached against Chuck Noll in his final game in the NFL.
“I have great respect for what they’ve done through the years,” Belichick said. “Coach Noll was a tremendous coach. [He] did a great job of I’d say developing a certain style of play on that team, both offensively and defensively. Really he’s kind of the founder of Cover-2 with Bud Carson and the stunt 4-3 defense that they ran, which is a 4-3 – it’s similar to what we did in Cleveland. It has some principles to it. Spacing is different, but it has a lot of the same principles that I’ve used in coaching 3-4 and those types of defenses throughout my career, as well as the Cover-2 foundation that Coach Noll laid. And then Coach Cowher came in there and had tremendous success with their blitz-zone scheme.”