During their divisional round playoff game against the Houston Texans, the New England Patriots interior offensive line struggled to consistently contain its opponent’s pass rush. Houston regularly used its speedy edge defenders and linebackers to put pressure particularly on center David Andrews and left guard Joe Thuney.
Especially in the first half, the plan worked. New England’s offense was unable to get into a rhythm because of the pressure the Texans’ talented frontline players put on the Patriots’ interior blockers. Ultimately, the team found a way to maneuver around the interior pressure but with the Pittsburgh Steelers coming to town might once again be forced to deal with it – at least if the Steelers decide to change things up a bit defensively.
Houston uses its talented linebackers to serve a multitude of roles and one of them – rushing from the interior – created the majority of New England’s blocking issues. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, does not move the linebackers around as much as the Texans do. Last week against the Kansas City Chiefs, for example, the team predominately used the following approach.
Late in the second quarter, with Kansas City taking over after a Steelers interception, the team was driving to re-take the lead in a 9-7 ballgame. Pittsburgh’s defense tried preventing that by playing it standard defense based on 3-4 principles: The team would either use two or three down-linemen in addition to four linebackers – usually Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Bud Dupree and James Harrison (who all have played 95+% of defensive snaps this postseason).
1) 1-10-KC 20 (6:04) S.Ware left guard to KC 23 for 3 yards (R.Shazier).
On 1st and 10, the Steelers used a standard 3-4 alignment with three defensive linemen and four linebackers, one of which – Bud Dupree (#48) – playing on the weak side of the line of scrimmage. Pittsburgh did not rush Dupree, though, and instead opted to use Ryan Shazier as the fourth rusher. Shazier ultimately took down running back Spencer Ware (#32) after a gain of three yards.
While it was nothing fancy from the Steelers’ side, the play was successful as the entire unit performed. The defensive tackles were able to penetrate and take up space, allowing the linebackers behind them to push forward.
2) 2-7-KC 23 (5:26) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass incomplete short right to T.Hill (B.Dupree).
The very next play saw the Steelers change things up a bit by going from a base personnel group to a nickel defense. The incoming defensive back replaced defensive tackle Leterrius Walton (#96) in the lineup. As a result, the Steelers played with two down-linemen and the two outside linebackers Dupree and James Harrison (#92) at the end of the line:
Again, Pittsburgh attacked the pocket with four players. One of them, Dupree, perfectly read the play from the get-go and was able to break up quarterback Alex Smith’s (#11) pass attempt.
Those two plays, as small a snapshot as they are, illustrate an approach that is similar to the Patriots’ way of playing defense: Making sure the middle is clogged with big, hard to move defenders to free up the edge defenders and second-level linebackers to make plays on the ball. For comparison, the Texans more regularly used their linebackers as part of this first line of defense – and it gave New England fits at times.
The Steelers have also used that mode of attack in the past but far less often than the Texans did. When they rush their linebackers over the middle it is mostly on blitz plays. Last week against Kansas City, there were only four snaps that saw a linebacker align right over an interior offensive lineman. One of them came in the fourth quarter with Kansas City :
3) 3-9-PIT 25 (4:53) (Shotgun) A.Smith pass incomplete deep middle to C.Conley (S.Davis). KC-C.Conley was injured during the play.
On 3rd and 9 late in the fourth period, the Steelers opted to play more aggressively and used Dupree to play a 1-technique in a two-point stance:
He ultimately did not rush the passer but instead dropped into coverage. The look, however, still shows that Pittsburgh is not opposed to using its talented linebackers on the interior line of scrimmage to disguise their defensive intentions.
In their first matchup with the Patriots in week 7, the Steelers also did not place an extra emphasis on creating pressure up the middle with their linebackers. Instead, they relied on their usual modus operandi: The defensive line controlling the point of attack, allowing the linebackers to make plays. And make plays the typically do as Shazier is tied for the team-lead in interceptions (3, plus 2 in the playoffs), while Harrison has the most sacks on the squad (5.0, plus 2.5 in the playoffs).
So when it comes to copying Houston’s approach to attacking New England’s offensive line, Pittsburgh’s coaching staff basically has one decision to make: Stick with what has worked over the past few weeks and play "traditional" 2016 Steelers defense, or throw a curveball and try to mimic the Texans’ plan.
Judging by the two playoff games Pittsburgh has played so far this season, the team seems more inclined to do the former. After all, the players seem comfortable playing that kind of defense and the results speak for themselves. Against an offense like the Patriots’, though, which is superior to the Dolphins’ and Chiefs’ and has shown some weaknesses on the interior offensive line, the Steelers might be more willing to diverge a little.
Therefore, while the vast majority of defensive snaps will likely still see Pittsburgh use its frontline players as it has all season long, defensive coordinator Keith Butler – as the Chiefs game has shown – might be willing to pull new tricks out of his hat in critical situations. Whatever he opts to do, New England better be ready to counter or else it could be a long day for the offense.