Troy Polamalu made another signature play on Sunday night when he came flying off the edge and did a superman tomahawk to Joe Flacco’s blindside, forcing the fumble that would ultimately swing the game in the Steelers favor. The question that has to be asked (and has been asked by many, including Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs): How the hell did nobody account for the best player on the Steelers defense?
The answer: Dick LeBeau is crazy like a fox.
Greg Easterbrook writes the Tuesday Morning Quarterback column for ESPN’s Page 2 and talked about this play in his latest 80,000 word novel. In it, he describes LeBeau’s defensive system as “choreography and confusion.”
He also challenges the belief that Polamalu made a great play by arguing that he actually did the easiest thing on the field: run in a straight line, unblocked, and hit a quarterback that had no idea he was coming. He’s not entirely wrong … to an extent. Polamalu was unblocked, and a lot of this plays success was based on design. That said, not every defensive coordinator can draw up a play like this because not every defensive coordinator has Troy Polamalu. Also: Polamalu’s quickness and athleticism is a huge factor here. A safety (or linebacker) that’s a split second slower doesn’t get to the quarterback in time to force the fumble (it probably goes as an incomplete pass).
So, yes, it was the result of design, but the player allows the design to work.
And here’s the design.
First, thanks to some great camera work from NBC, we can see what Flacco is looking at when the two teams line up. The two players to watch for the Steelers: James Harrison and Polamalu. Harrison is lined up outside of left tackle Michael Oher, while Polamalu is pacing like a caged tiger seven yards from the line of scrimmage.
Quickly, however, this alignment changes. Just before the Ravens snap the ball, Harrison shifts to his left (Oher’s right) and is now lined up inside of the Ravens tackle. Polamalu quickly gets up to the line of scrimmage and is next to Harrison. There’s a lot of different ways teams blitz to get at the quarterback. The Jets, for example, use numbers and bring as many people as they possibly can and try to outnumber the offense (bring more people than you can block).
The Steelers typically bring fewer numbers but do so in a manner that leaves players unblocked (choreography and confusion).
On this play, the Steelers bring six (which is a lot of them): Polamalu, Harrison, Brett Kiesel, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and Ziggy Hood. Six, of course, being the exact number of players the Ravens have protecting: their five offensive linemen, as well as running back Ray Rice. In theory, they should be able to match up with every player and have everyone accounted for. But, like communism, this only works in theory. In execution, it’s a disaster.
Here’s what the Steelers alignment looks like just before the snap.
Once the play begins, Harrison goes inside of Oher and completely takes him out of the play. Meanwhile, left guard Ben Grubbs and center Matt Birk are occupied by Kiesel, while the right side of the line and Rice are all matched up one-on-one with Hood, Woodley and Timmons. This leaves Polamalu unblocked with a clean shot at Flacco.
He doesn’t miss. And here’s what it looks like when all of the parts are moving…
The beauty of it is the Steelers defense is so complex that they’ll probably never show this front again. And if they do, they’ll have the freedom to — and probably will — bring an entirely different combination of rushers from different angles.
All about confusion.