|Tom E. Puskar / Associated Press|
|Troy Polamalu's aggresive, big-play style and Dick LeBeau's creative mind make them a perfect match in Pittsburgh.|
He's at it again. Dick LeBeau's defense is back at the top of the charts, and the 73-year-old Steelers defensive coordinator is proving what he said at his Hall of Fame induction speech in August: "Age is just a number."
Forty-three is just a number, too, but without Pittsburgh's No. 43 roaming around his defense, LeBeau would have trouble doing some of the things he does scheme-wise. We saw that last season when the Steel Curtain was a lead balloon without Troy Polamalu.
LeBeau and Polamalu are a perfect fit. Both are extremely smart. Both wear their hair a bit long, although LeBeau's is more "Eight is Enough" than Head and Shoulders. One is a Hall of Fame defensive back; the other will be soon enough.
LeBeau was one of the first defensive coordinators to truly mask his intentions, and Polamalu is just the right fit for a design that capitalizes on a player who can do pretty much everything well.
If LeBeau needs Polamalu to blitz full-tilt in a key situation, he'll dial it up, irrespective of whether it's depleting the back half of the defense. If LeBeau wants his All-Pro safety to play in the box, Polamalu can make plays in the run game just as effectively. And if the game situation calls for Polamalu to roam 15 yards deep and play air traffic control, he's heady enough to take risks without giving up many big plays.
We saw this last weekend in the Steelers' 23-7 home win over Cincinnati. With the Bengals leading 7-0 in the second quarter, Polamalu baited Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and jumped Terrell Owens' route. Result: Pick-six and a brand new ball game.
It looked as though Owens tripped over the corner's feet before coming out of his break, but either way, Polamalu waited, read and reacted so quickly that the best the Bengals could've hoped for -- even if T.O. ran his route crisply -- was a nasty collision.
While utilizing a safety as a centerfielder has often been game-altering, so is asking him to move up to the line of scrimmage and blitz full tilt. But what makes Dick LeBeau Dick LeBeau is often the "when" more than the "how."
Remember when your ex told you it was just the timing before dumping you for the frat guy? Ok, maybe that only happened to me, but with LeBeau it really is all in the timing. In week 13, LeBeau had Polamalu mad dog the Ravens in a situation that most defensive coordinators would play it safe.
Baltimore was trying to run the clock out, protecting a four-point lead with just over three minutes to go. It was a second-and-five, normally a running down in a late-game situation like this. Yet, while most coordinators would've played it safe with their base defense, especially if their run defense was as good as Pittsburgh's (No. 1 in the NFL), LeBeau rolled the dice.
With no tight end or back to Joe Flacco's left, Polamalu crept up and blitzed from the weak side, unimpeded. A gamble, yes, but a safe one when your safety can cover the quarterback's five-yard drop in less than two seconds. There wasn't enough time for Flacco to get the ball to his tight end out in the left flat. Not to mention, he should've changed his protection so that Ray Rice picked up Polamalu coming from the side without a tight end.
That's exactly what LeBeau's defense does. They force the offense to adjust constantly, and if they don't, the price is paid. Here, it cost Baltimore a win.
LeBeau has been known for creating confusion and disruption his entire career. His zone blitz creation has essentially been the intermittent windshield wiper, an improvement on an existing product -- the run-of-the-mill blitz. LeBeau's top-shelf blitz design is a performance car that didn't kill the gas mileage.
In its simplest form, the zone blitz sends guys to the pocket, while dropping others into zones so as to send mixed signals and create pressure, without exposing itself in pass coverage. So a cornerback may blitz, with the defensive end of all people dropping back to disrupt passing lanes. When LeBeau started doing this in 1984, there weren't a lot of defensive ends backpedaling to play coverage.
The zone blitz causes offensive coordinators and veteran quarterbacks alike to rethink their protection schemes. It also can confuse a running back with regard to whose ribs he should bury his shoulder into. These days, if a back doesn't know who to block on passing downs, they probably won't start.
While NFL color guys drone on and on about "disguising blitzes," LeBeau's defense is possibly more effective at disguising coverages. Exhibit A was LaMarr Woodley's pick-six versus Palmer last Sunday. The Bengals' 100-million dollar quarterback looked David Klingler-like in throwing the ball right to Woodley.
If you watch the play pre-snap, notice how Woodley lines up on the left side of the line as if he's blitzing. Pause the video right when Palmer starts his throwing motion. You'll see that Woodley had no intention of blitzing. Instead, he immediately sprints to the flat, cutting off Palmer's throwing angle to Chad Ochocinco on the right sideline. After the touchdown, Palmer makes the Manning face while watching the replay on the videoboard.
All quarterbacks have been making the Manning face when trying to throw deep on the Steelers' defense this season. That's where Lebeau's unit and gameplans have benefited the most from the return of a healthy Polamalu.
Pittsburgh is only allowing opposing quarterbacks a 59.7 passer rating on deep throws, eighth best in the NFL. Last season the Steelers ranked 27th in that same category. Cornerbacks Ike Taylor and William Gay allowed wide receivers to run hog-wild on seam routes and deep outs, when there was no Polamalu around to stop the bleeding.
Taking his impact a step further, consider that Pittsburgh's turnover differential and big play differential together leads the NFL. Pittsburgh topped the NFL in this category in 2008 and won the Super Bowl that year. Last season's champs, the Saints, finished in the top five of the combined differentials.
This is not to say the Steelers are on their way to hoisting a seventh Lombardi Trophy. But with a healthy Polamalu playing like a league MVP and LeBeau showing that you don't have to work at Radio Shack at 70 years plus, maybe Pittsburgh is the team to beat.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.