Troy Polamalu: A Lesson In Design

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.

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  • The Bus

    Great post! LeBeau is a genius!!!

  • Anonymous
  • Wfucich

    Timmons completely blows up a good blocker in Ray Rice on this play from the other side. I hadn’t noticed that until now.

  • LAURENN.

    WHAT A WONDERFUL ARTICLE AND GREAT BREAKDOWN OF EVENTS! THANK YOU! (BTW: LOVE THE COMMUNISM JOKE)

  • drinkingclub

    So, did Woodley get the business in the locker room for letting Boldin bring him down? I guess Redman is probably pretty happy though.

    Good article, Adam.

  • John S.

    I think an interesting comparison would be the game losing play in the first game against the Ravens. That also involved blitzing Polamalu. What did they do differently, or perhaps learn from that play to make this Troy blitz more effective?

  • DC in ATL

    Great article. Love seeing how this unfolded, and seeing how Harrison and Keisel made key contributions to free up Polamalu. I believe I heard Farrior say after the game that our defense was expecting a run and that this was a run blitz.

    Ravens Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron taking heat for calling a pass here…if Troy had been a second later, Flacco had their tight end Dickson briefly open in the flat. Ryan Clark (I think, hard to tell) was closing fast but its possible that Dickson (who ended up tackling Woodley) could have had an easy first down if Flacco had been quicker.

  • GlennW

    My personal theory is that Troy willed himself invisible (to the Ravens only, not the cameras) with an ancient Samoan mind trick…

  • CE

    nice breakdown, Adam — thanks. and not to bring the conversation back to a lowlight, but I’d be interested in thoughts as to whether Lebeau was trying stuff like this in the Pats game. aside from the obvious lack of results, it almost felt like the game plan called for playing it pretty straight… I don’t remember much blitzing (zone or otherwise). is that right? or was Brady just able to audible out of trouble every time?

    also — it felt like they had Troy up in cover two a ton in that game. I didn’t understand that then, and I don’t now. the Pats have a bunch of good to great possession receivers and no deep threats, so why neutralize your best playmaker by having him defend against low likelihood plays? particularly when your best chance of getting that offense off the field is via big plays — it’s not like they’re going to take themselves out with execution errors (unlike the Ravens).

  • CE

    nice breakdown, Adam — thanks. and not to bring the conversation back to a lowlight, but I’d be interested in thoughts as to whether Lebeau was trying stuff like this in the Pats game. aside from the obvious lack of results, it almost felt like the game plan called for playing it pretty straight… I don’t remember much blitzing (zone or otherwise). is that right? or was Brady just able to audible out of trouble every time?

    also — it felt like they had Troy up in cover two a ton in that game. I didn’t understand that then, and I don’t now. the Pats have a bunch of good to great possession receivers and no deep threats, so why neutralize your best playmaker by having him defend against low likelihood plays? particularly when your best chance of getting that offense off the field is via big plays — it’s not like they’re going to take themselves out with execution errors (unlike the Ravens).

  • StillerFan

    I think it’s fair to say that this was a breakdown of communication / assumptions by the ravens. This was caused by excellent design of the play against the formation that the steelers saw all night, and the ravens being concerned about Kiesel, Harrison, and Timmons.

    1) Center, LG are worried about Kiesel, don’t pay attention to Harrison.
    2) Oher is worried about Harrison, thinks Ray Rice will pick up Troy.
    3) Rice worried about Timmons, thinks Oher will block Troy.

    Think this happens without Kiesel? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have shocked me if the interior double team is what made this whole play work, besides, of course, the excellent design and execution.

    • Stephen

      I think the double team makes it work. Similarly, I think this is why our whole defense suffers when Aaron Smith isn’t on the field – the man consumes blockers like none other. He always requires a double team to stop. With him and Kiesel on the line at the same time, it really generates holes for our blitzers in a way that Hood and Eason, or even Hood and Kiesl can’t match.

  • David

    Re-watching and re-watching (yes, I thank Santa for this early X-mas present of a win), I’m gonna backtrack a bit on the telecasts:

    -Michaels and Collinsworth are the best available team today. The latter was very good Sun. Michaels, well, he OK, but at least he calls the plays. On that play, he mentioned Polamalu, Woodley, and the yd line DURING the play. Kudos to him.
    -Nance and Fouts were very good Sunday also. Don’t know why they jettisoned Simms.
    -But the dream team broadcast would be, IMO, Gus Johnson and Gary Danielson.
    -

    • Randy Steele

      Simms had back surgery last weekend and was placed on IR.

  • GlennW

    On the earlier comment about LeBeau finally dialing up the blitz packages, see the link to the Trib column below including James Farrior’s comments that the defensive players implored him to do so starting earlier in the game. So, apparently the players also deserve credit for the intelligent “design”.of this decisive play.

    http://m.triblive.com/triblive/db_/contentdetail.htm;jsessionid=36D97D46706BA59EF3A45B9BE731024D?contentguid=9zyVmpHV&full=true

    • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

      Wow. Reading that link makes it sound like the players were hesitant to make in-game suggestions to LeBeau. I don’t have a problem with that necessarily, it’s just that I’ve grown accustomed to players yelling and screaming at coaches on a weekly basis (or worse: pulling a Haynesworth).

      • Ted

        With the type of relationships LeBeau has with his mostly veteran defenders, I would think they would have no hesitation in voicing their opinions while always respecting his final decisions. That read was surprising, but Farrior is our coach on the field for the defense.

      • Ted

        With the type of relationships LeBeau has with his mostly veteran defenders, I would think they would have no hesitation in voicing their opinions while always respecting his final decisions. That read was surprising, but Farrior is our coach on the field for the defense.

        • GlennW

          Note that most of the commentary on any fear or trepidation around approaching LeBeau came from the writer John Harris, not Farrior. Potsie suggests that the players do throw out ideas from time to time, while still showing respect for the coach in addressing the media. I think that’s all there was to this, and that there’s a healthy relationship in place there.

    • CE

      thanks for that, Glenn. double wow. Lebeau is fantastic of course, but I don’t know what to think about his needing to be pushed by his players to dump an ineffective strategy… how many more Ryan Fitzgeralds and Joe Flaccos were going to have to carve us up before he came to that conclusion on his own?

  • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan

    John S,

    RE: comparing the two Troy blitzes from the two Ravens games, the difference this time? B-Mac held Boldin at the line of scrimmage (he was Flacco’s first look), instead of getting juked by Housh (which is what happened the first time).

    David,

    RE: Simms — I think he was sick or had minor surgery or some such. Nothing serious, I believe, just had a week or two off. But I agree, Simms + Fouts was listenable.

  • http://www.11rush.com ray

    I’ve heard conflicting reports about whether or not the Steelers expected a pass here. Could it be that this defense was actually designed to stop the run? (A run by the Ravens would have made a ton more sense.)

  • jorge

    nice read

    best part

    ” 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.”