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11-12-2010, 11:11 PM
Curtain tradition
Number-crunching confirms the strength of Pittsburgh's crunching defense

Running on first down against the Steelers is a great way to set up 2nd-and-long. More than 75 percent of first-down carries against Pittsburgh netted three yards or less.

By Mike Tanier
NBCSports.com contributor
updated 8:55 p.m. ET Nov. 9, 2010

The Steelers' defense has a carefully cultivated image. They are known for relentless blitzes, vicious (sometimes illegal) hits, a four-decade tradition of excellence, awesome black uniforms and Troy Polamalu's incongruously perfect hair.

But there's a lot more to the Pittsburgh defense than sacks and shampoo commercials. The Steelers do a lot of things well that don't show up on the highlight reels and can be tricky to spot on the stat sheet.
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The Patriots will try to neutralize the Pittsburgh pass rush by using extra tight ends and short passes to protect Tom Brady, but the Steelers don't have to sack you to beat you. Their first down defense and ability to limit big plays allow them to shut down opponents, even if the quarterback manages to keep his uniform clean.

Stuffed from the start: All of the tricky blitzes in the world won't do a defense much good if the opponent can rack up six or seven yards on first down. For the Steelers, great defense starts on first down, and it starts by stuffing the run.

Opponents have attempted 81 running plays on first down against the Steelers. Here's a breakdown of how those runs worked out for them:

First down running plays

Loss or no gain........24 carries
1-3 yards..................37 carries
4-11 yards................20 carries

As you can see, running on first down against the Steelers is a great way to set up 2nd-and-long: more than 75 percent of those carries netted three yards or less. A quick look at the Steelers' opponents Chris Johnson and the Titans, Ray Rice and the Ravens, Michael Turner and the Falcons makes their accomplishment even more remarkable. Pittsburgh has faced several opponents committed to establishing the run, and the Steeler D has shut them all down.

Linebacker Lawrence Timmons is the Steelers' top first-down run defender; he has stuffed opposing runners for no gain or a loss eight times on first down. Think of those stuffs like mini-sacks; force a team like the Titans into an obvious passing situation, and you've essentially stopped their offense.

Open field is closed: On those unlikely occasions where a running back does break through the line of scrimmage, he discovers that life doesn't get any easier. At Football Outsiders, we keep track of "second level" and "open field" yards. Second level yards include the yardage allowed by a defense on 5-to-9 yard runs, while open field yards include the yardage allowed on runs of 10 yards or more. Tracking second level and open field yards gives us a better picture of how a run defense is really performing; some teams have great front sevens but bad safeties (the Buccaneers), so a few 40-yard runs make their overall stats look worse than they really are. (You can find the full tables at Football Outsiders.)

The Steelers rank second in the NFL in second level yards allowed and first in open field yards. They have allowed just seven runs of 10 or more yards this year, including one Josh Freeman scramble. The longest run they've allowed all season was a 14-yarder to Peyton Hillis. Take out the scrambles, and they have allowed just 31 runs of 5-9 yards. Again, look at the running backs they have faced: Johnson, Rice, Turner, Hillis, Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. It's a mixture of grinders and big-play guys, but neither power nor speed has put a crack in the Steelers' run defense.

Run defense is a true team effort for the Steelers. While Timmons gets most of the stuffs, everyone gets involved in making sure that four-yard runs don't become 14-yarders. At Football Outsiders, we credit a defender with a "success" if he makes a tackle after a short gain. The Steelers have three defenders with more than 20 successes on runs Timmons (34), James Harrison (24) and James Farrior (23) and five other defenders with seven or more. Only Timmons is among the league leaders, but defensive stats can be counterintuitive; teams abandon the run so quickly against the Steelers that their defenders don't get to rack up huge numbers.

The pain of containment: Once opponents take to the air, they expose their quarterbacks to a defense that has already recorded 20 sacks and 10 interceptions. But opponents also complete 67.2 percent of their passes against the Steelers and average 240 passing yards per game, the ninth highest figure in the NFL. Are these signs of vulnerability?

Not really. When the Steelers blitz they usually assign their cornerbacks and a safety (usually Ryan Clark, so Polamalu can blitz or do something crafty) to three-deep zone coverage. That means each defender is expected to drop back and keep the receiver in front of him. Pittsburgh fans are sometimes frustrated when Ike Taylor or William Gay allows an easy 10-yard completion, but those completions are residue of the team philosophy. If they give up a few 10-yarders, so be it. Just don't allow a bomb, because the blitz will eventually get to the quarterback if he keeps dropping to throw short passes.

The containment policy has worked for the Steelers for years, and it has been business as usual this season. Opponents have thrown for 20 or more yards just 23 times this year. Even that total is inflated: it includes seven 20-yard gains in the fourth quarters of blowouts against the Titans, Browns, Bengals and Buccaneers. That leaves 16 long gains in meaningful situations remarkable, considering that the Steelers have faced Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, the Terrell Owens-Chad Ochocinco experience, and the bomb-hurling Joe Flacco.

What about that high completion percentage? If you guessed that teams complete a lot of low-protein screens against the Steelers, you are correct; the Steelers have allowed 68 completions of five yards or less. Gay, Taylor, and Bryant McFadden have combined to make 24 tackles on those short completions. A list of the receivers they have held to minimal gains on quick passes Roddy White, Lance Moore, Marques Colston, Brandon Marshall, Terrell Owens and Derrick Mason, among others shows how well the three-deep principle works for the Steelers. Go ahead and throw for five yards on a screen. We'll get you next time.

Anti-patriot measures: The Patriots' offense has changed a lot since their 18-and-whoa days. Randy Moss is gone, of course, and so is the wide-open passing game. The Patriots now run more than pass on first down 112 runs to 104 passes and they are good at it, averaging 4.53 yards per rush. New England needs that early-down success because it no longer has the big-play potential Moss provided. Patriots receivers average just 11 yards per completion and top wideout Wes Welker averages just 8.1 yards per catch.

If the Patriots can't get their running game going and stay out of long-yardage situations, they'll play right into the Steelers' hands. Tom Brady may dink-and-dunk to Welker and his tight ends, but the Steelers will minimize the damage and wait for mistakes. Eventually, Brady's pass protection which isn't what it used to be (13 sacks allowed) will crack. And stopping BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead will be no problem for a team that easily corralled Rice and Johnson.

Of course, the highlights will only show the sacks. Just remember the stuffs and open-field tackles that made those sacks possible.
Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.