Steelers, Packers, Zone Blitzes and Organized Chaos

There are a lot of connections between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers heading into Super Bowl XLV. For example, you may have heard once or twice that Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is from Pittsburgh (seriously, it’s this year’s Jerome Bettis is from Detroit), or that defensive coordinator Dom Capers used to hold the same position in Pittsburgh (while Dick LeBeau was in charge of the defensive backs).

Both teams run 3-4 defenses and use different variations of the zone blitz to wreak havoc. This was on display Sunday during their respective conference championship games, with both teams getting game-changing defensive touchdowns as a result. Let’s take a look…

We’ll start with the play we all care about the most: William Gay’s fumble return for a touchdown at the end of the first half that gave the Steelers a 24-0 lead.

Here’s a look at how the Steelers initially lined up (using screenshots from the fan video I posted in Thursday’s daily thread, because it really does offer a great view of the play). Only three players down on the line and a bunch of players casually strolling around downfield.

As the Jets are getting ready to snap the ball, the alignment changes drastically; eight players are all within five yards of the line of scrimmage, including the three down linemen, linebackers Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison and James Farrior, as well as William Gay and Ike Taylor. Anybody that’s watched the Steelers knows that any of those players in any combination can be rushing from any direction.

When the play begins, the Steelers bring five rushers: the three down linemen and the two corners from the same side of the field. The linebackers all drop into coverage. The guys on NFL Network broke this play down on Wednesday and made mention that the inside slot receiver pointed to Taylor and Gay pre-snap and identified one — or both — of them as rushers. Didn’t matter.

The Jets had six protectors and, in theory, should have been able to account for each Steelers rusher (it’s simple math: six vs. five) This did not happen. Taylor and Gay run a type of stunt on the left side of the Jets line. Gay is picked up by LaDainian Tomlinson and as he takes his man outside, Taylor runs through a wide open lane that gives him a clean shot at Sanchez’s blind side. While all of this is going on, two Jets offensive linemen (left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold … their two best linemen) are left blocking nobody.

The rest, as they say, is history. And here’s what it looks like when all of the parts are in motion.

Now let’s move on to the Packers. Late in the fourth quarter, Green Bay is holding a 14-7 lead while Chicago is facing a third-and-five. The play results in nose tackle B.J. Raji dropping into coverage, intercepting a pass and running it back for a game-winning touchdown. FOX announcer Joe Buck is shocked that Raji is in coverage, obviously unaware that fat guys like Raji tend to do just that in this type of defense. They just don’t always make interceptions and run them back for six. But don’t blame Buck for that, he was probably wishing it was a Yankees-Red Sox game.

Here’s Green Bay’s alignment. Nothing really out of the ordinary.

At the snap, the Packers are only going to rush four defenders while Chicago has five protectors. Again, just like on the Steelers play, the offense has the advantage in terms of numbers relying on more people to block fewer rushers. And just like the Steelers play, the defense has a player get a clean shot at the quarterback while multiple offensive linemen are left blocking nobody. The only difference is that the unblocked pass rusher doesn’t get an opportunity to hit the quarterback, he simply forces a bad throw directly into the teeth of the coverage.

The key figures here are Raji, the nose tackle, and cornerback Sam Shields. Raji, the only Packers defender between the line of scrimmage and the first down marker, dropped into coverage in an area with Matt Forte and Devin Hester running routes. On paper, that’s a mismatch in the Bears’ favor. But with all the chaos going on around quarterback Caleb Hanie, he doesn’t have an opportunity to exploit it.

If Hanie would have had a split second more to sit in the pocket, Hester would have been wide open in the middle of the field, right at the first-down marker. It would have been a simple pitch and catch and, perhaps, a big play to keep the Bears drive — and maybe season — going. But because Shields had a clean shot at Hanie coming off the edge, he was forced to get rid of the football before Hester could get clear from Raji.

That blur in the middle of the field is Hester.

Here it is in motion…

The quarterbacks are going to get most of the attention this week, but the two defensive coordinators are masters of confusion. It’s going to be one hell of a matchup.

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