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Old 08-30-2009, 11:11 AM   #1
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Default Smart Football With Chris Brown: A Look at Steelers Strategy

(Note there are diagrams and video with this article. See the URL below. - mesa)
August 28, 2009, 6:00 am
Smart Football With Chris Brown: A Look at Steelers Strategy
By Chris Brown

(Editor’s note: Chris Brown, an expert on the strategy of football, will write a weekly analysis for the Fifth Down this season. His Web site, Smart Football, is well worth a visit.)

For at least as long as anyone can remember, the Steelers’ offense has been known for doing two things well: running the ball, and throwing bombs when the defense creeps up to stop the run. Pittsburgh won four Super Bowls with Franco Harris and Terry Bradshaw, not to mention Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, using this strategy, and Bill Cowher updated that to the 1990s and into this decade. Last season, however, the Steelers weren’t very good at much of anything on offense — except when it absolutely counted. It was enough to win them the Super Bowl.

Throughout the season, the defense carried the team to a 12-4 mark, despite the offense’s pitiful statistics. Pittsburgh ranked 20th in total points scored, 22nd in yards, 20th in net yards per pass attempt, 23rd in total rushing yards and an incredibly bad 29th in yards per rush. To the Steelers fan, those last two numbers must be the most painful — the team’s legacy is built on the idea of a tough running game. The defense ranked No. 1 overall in both total yards and points, and gets plenty of well-deserved credit. And yet, you have to score to win, and the Steelers, throughout the season and, most important, in the Super Bowl, always seemed to score just enough. And so it was in the Super Bowl.

Enter Arians. Mike Tomlin has shown himself to be an adept coach, particularly on defense, but he has largely left control of the offense with coordinator Bruce Arians. Arians bounced around the college ranks before ascending to a job with the Kansas City Chiefs in the early ’90s, and from then on he has cycled between college and the pros, though since 1998 he has been exclusively with pro teams. That was the year he became Peyton Manning’s quarterbacks coach, when he indoctrinated the then-young Manning in the complexities (or, more accurately, beautiful simplicity) of Indianapolis Colts coordinator Tom Moore’s system. Arians was given the chance to test these theories as offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns, but Cleveland’s mediocrity, both as a team and at quarterback (he worked primarily with Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb), cost Butch Davis, then Arians’s boss, his job. Arians then took a job as an assistant in Pittsburgh.

This background is relevant because coordinators — unless they are Bill Walsh, and even then — tend to be something of a summation of their influences. The question is how well they synthesize these influences. The final bit of learning for Arians came from former Steelers offensive coordinator and current Cardinals head coach, Ken Whisenhunt. When Whisenhunt left Pittsburgh in 2007, Arians ascended to the job, and was tasked with not breaking an offense that had won a Super Bowl in 2006. Of course, the Steeler offense wasn’t a record-setter then, either. That Super Bowl run had been sparked by one of the great runs by adefensive coordinator — Dick LeBeau repeatedly dialed up the perfect zone-blitzes, befuddling the previously potent offenses of the Colts and Seahawks.

Over the past few seasons, Arians has largely kept Whisenhunt’s basic scheme and structure in place, much of which can actually be traced back to what Mike Mularkey had done in the same role. Arians did bring in a few of his own concepts, however. One of them, a pass concept known in coaching circles as “snag,” won the Steelers their sixth Super Bowl.

Run me ragged. Before turning to the Super Bowl game-winner, a word on the Pittsburgh run game. Schematically the Steelers use the same basic plays as most other N.F.L. teams: the inside zone, outside zone, power and the counter trey. Tomlin still believes in the traditional Steeler muscled approach to a football game, where “establishing the run” was not something Bill Walsh debunked but an immutable maxim of how football is played. And when it works, it works. The counter trey, made famous by Joe Gibbs’s Redskins, is still probably Pittsburgh’s go-to run. The mechanics of the play are simple: the playside of the line — i.e. if the play is going to the right, the right side of the line — steps “down” to cave in the defense, making double teams where possible. The backside guard, however, pulls, while another blocker, either the backside tackle or possibly an H-back, pulls and either “kicks out” the end man on the line or leads up to hit a linebacker himself. The running back takes a short counterstep, then takes the handoff and explodes into the hole, looking to follow his blockers and cut off their blocks. The basics of the play are diagrammed below.
smartfootball.com Steelers Counter

There is perhaps no better illustration of the play than Willie Parker’s 75-yard touchdown run against the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL. When you watch the video, watch the line: see how the H-back/tight end goes in motion and kicks out the end man on the line for Seattle’s defense, while the backside guard pulls and gets just enough of a block to spring Willie for the long run. Unsurprisingly, this play is still in the Steelers’ book.

“Snag,” for the win. Parker’s run was spectacular, but when it comes to Super Bowl touchdowns, not much beats the Roethlisberger-to-Holmes connection that capped last year’s game. Although the play did involve some improvising, it basically worked the way it was supposed to: the Steelers bunched up their formation, had several receivers run underneath routes to hold the coverage, while Santonio Holmes ran to the corner. Roethlisberger found him, and the rest, is, well, history.

But it’s worth understanding what Arians was trying to do on the play, and why this worked. Basically, “snag,” as the play is known in typical West Coast offense terminology (I do not know Pittsburgh’s specific play name, and even if I did, it wouldn’t be fair to say it), is a variant on the “smash” concept, another West Coast and pro-passing staple. Smash is a simple high-to-low read for the quarterback: an outside receiver runs a short stop or hitch route at a depth of five yards or so, while an inside receiver or tight end runs upfield and breaks for the corner at around ten or twelve yards. If the cornerback comes up for the quick hitch, the corner should be wide open. If he plays soft, the QB throws the underneath route.

Snag takes this principle and basically adds another guy to get a better “underneath stretch” on the underneath zones. The outermost receiver breaks inside as if he were on a slant or short crossing route to a depth of about five yards, the second receiver runs the corner route, while the innermost receiver — it could be a third receiver, a tight end, or a running back — runs to the flat. The quarterback still reads the play high-to-low, except this time he has more underneath options. Indeed, if you look at how the three receivers are placed, it creates a triangle — a sort of combination of a one-two inside to out or horizontal read, and a one-two high-to-low vertical read. The reason you need this sort of thing is that in the modern N.F.L., even experienced quarterbacks can’t always tell you with exact certainty what coverage the defense is in. Teams like the Ravens with guys like Ed Reed can move around so much and give you so many different looks (or the Steelers with Troy Polamalu), so instead the offense can take a piece of the field and try to analyze that. The Super Bowl winner is diagrammed below.
smartfootball.com Snag

On the play, Roethlisberger would have had options on the backside had the Cardinals rotated too far over to Holmes’s side, but he didn’t need to look in that direction. Below is a video clip of the game winner. Without the game film, it is difficult to say exactly why Holmes was able to get behind all the Cardinals defenders, but the most likely answer is that they jumped — just enough — on Pittsburgh’s underneath receivers, and possibly Roethlisberger used his eyes as well. In any event, suffice to say that Holmes did got behind them, and that was the difference in the game.

So a new set of Super Bowl rings should take some of the heat off Arians, who a few years ago was being hailed as a future guru and head coach in the league. And this year’s Steelers squad shouldn’t be as depleted by injury, and the run game should improve with a healthy Parker and a promising second-year player, Rashard Mendenhall. But in the N.F.L., past success is not a free pass for all time. It’s a new season, and the pressure is on again. It’ll be interesting to see what Arians cooks up for this year.

You can follow Chris Brown on Twitter.
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