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|12-04-2011, 07:52 AM||#1|
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Steelers: AFC North boasts four of top six defenses in NFL
Steelers: AFC North boasts four of top six defenses in NFL
The defenses in today's game, like so many around the NFL, find their genesis in a meeting of defensive apostles named Bill, Dom and Marvin
Sunday, December 04, 2011
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The tentacles of the Steelers defense that has dominated the National Football League landscape for nearly two decades stretch from a meeting room in Three Rivers Stadium to several of the league's upper-tier teams, none more significant than the one that will visit Heinz Field today.
In 1992, shortly after he was hired to replace Chuck Noll as Steelers coach, Bill Cowher sat in a room with three other assistants and sculpted a defense that would become the scourge of the league for many years, a unit that ultimately would be responsible for four trips to the Super Bowl and two Vince Lombardi trophies in the ensuing 18 years.
In that room were defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the first person Cowher hired to his staff; Dick LeBeau, his secondary coach; and Marvin Lewis, a young linebackers coach. All three assistants would go on to become head coaches in the NFL.
Together, they brandished many ideas and formulated many concepts that, over the years, would be carried to other NFL outposts, from Carolina to Green Bay, Baltimore to Cincinnati.
At the center of the defensive development was Capers, a former secondary coach for the New Orleans Saints who was brought in to run the defense because Cowher liked the way he had devised coverages to stop Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. Also involved in the construction was LeBeau, a former defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals who began using something called a zone blitz in the 1980s -- a scheme that eventually would revolutionize the NFL two decades later.
They came up with a 900-page playbook that featured two different defenses -- the 4-3 preferred by Cowher, a former defensive coordinator in Kansas City, and the 3-4 preferred by Capers.
And getting to absorb it all was Lewis, who would take many of those same principles with him to Baltimore, where, as defensive coordinator, he sculpted one of the greatest defenses in NFL history in 2000 when the Ravens won the Super Bowl.
Now, as head coach of the Bengals -- a 7-4 team that will meet the Steelers (8-3) at 1 p.m. today at Heinz Field -- many of the same tenets and much of the same attitude are being nurtured in Cincinnati.
With the help of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, a technical mastermind who gives an offense more different looks than Halle Berry, the Bengals are playoff hopefuls again with two rookie wunderkinds on offense and a resurgent defense whose roots can be traced up the Ohio River to a meeting room in the Steelers' old stadium.
"That [defense] left Pittsburgh, went to Baltimore and now it is in Cincinnati," Lewis said. "It hasn't changed much. I would say the origin of the three of them started right there along the river."
3 teams, same principle
For the past decade, the Steelers and Ravens have been the standard bearer for how to play suffocating defense in the NFL. Since 2000, the teams have combined to lead the league in total defense six times and scoring defense five times. This year is no exception.
The Steelers are second to the Houston Texans in total defense, third in the league in pass defense and fourth in the NFL in scoring defense. The Ravens lead the league in sacks (38) and are third in total defense, scoring defense and rush defense.
Not surprisingly, they are tied for the AFC North lead with 8-3 records, though the Ravens own the tiebreaker because they have defeated the Steelers twice this season.
But here are the Bengals, a game out of the division lead but, like the Steelers, a front-runner for two of the wild-card playoff spots with five games remaining. And, like the teams in front of them, the catalyst has been their defense, which ranks fifth overall after leading the league for back-to-back weeks earlier in the season.
The Bengals might look a little different schematically -- they employ a 4-3 defense that features an eight-man rotation along the defensive line -- but the concept of what they are doing has the same tone as the Steelers and Ravens.
"I think that the three of them use a lot of the same principle, even though we are structured a little differently, as far as the theory of stopping the run and how to do that," Lewis said
• The Bengals defense has ranked No. 1 overall at the end of the season only once in franchise history -- 1983. Since then, the only time the defense has ever ranked No. 1 overall at any point in the season was Weeks 4 and 5 this season.
• Their rush defense is No. 5, allowing an average of 92.7 yards per game. That mark would set a franchise record, if it stands. So would their average of 3.52 yards per rush.
• The Bengals are on pace for 41 sacks, which would be the most during Lewis' nine-year tenure.
Granted, nobody is ready to bestow a nickname on the Bengals defense. Not yet, anyway. But their desire to build their defense to such a solid level is as much a byproduct of necessity as it is idealism: They need to do so to keep up with the Steelers and Ravens and survive in the AFC North.
"We set the tone, us and Baltimore for this division," said linebacker Larry Foote, who has been with the team since 2002, save for a one-year hiatus in Detroit. "I know GMs and owners and head coaches know, in order to compete in this division, you got to do it on the defensive side. That might have motivated those teams to pay extra attention to defense."
And it's not just the Bengals. The Cleveland Browns have dedicated their rebuilding to defense and, despite their 4-7 record, are on the right track. The Browns rank sixth in total defense in the league, but No. 1 against the pass.
That gives the AFC North four of the top six-ranked defenses in the league.
"You got to find a way," said Steelers defensive captain and inside linebacker James Farrior. "Pittsburgh and Baltimore have been dominating the division for a lot of years. You got to find a way to build a team around winning the division and, if physicality is what you need to get, then that's what they're going to try to do."
"I don't know if we set the standard as much as we set the formula for it," safety Ryan Clark said. "People understand that if you want to be successful, especially in this division, you have to stop people from scoring. If you want to beat the team that has been the best, historically, at that, they're going to have to stop people from scoring."
Wins depend on defense
Unlike the Steelers, who have nine defensive starters who were either drafted or signed as rookie free agents, the Bengals have tried to reconstruct their defense with a mix of draft picks and veteran free agents.
While all eight of their defensive linemen were draft choices, two starting linebackers -- Thomas Howard (Oakland) and Manny Lawson (San Francisco) -- and all four members of the starting secondary -- cornerbacks Nate Clements and Adam "Pac Man" Jones and safeties Reggie Nelson and Chris Crocker -- were acquired in free agency or a trade.
"They got a great system and they know how to find guys who fit into their system," Zimmer said, his voice glowing in admiration of the Steelers defense. "Obviously, the continuity they've had, for the most part, on the coaching staff on both sides allows the players to understand more what is expected of them, not only on game day but throughout the week as far as preparation. That's why they're successful.
"You have a way of doing things and you're successful at that and you continue to tweak and try to make you better. But the rules don't change. The players aren't hearing one thing this week and one thing another. That, in itself, leads to playing good defense every week."
The Bengals have been doing it with a different approach than the Steelers, mainly by utilizing an eight-man rotation along the defensive line that features two sets of four players -- one to stop the run, another to pressure the quarterback.
So far, both have been working.
Of their 28 sacks, 23 1/2 have come from their defensive linemen. The leader is defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who had one of his team-high 6 1/2 sacks in the first meeting against the Steelers.
"Defense always wins championships," said receiver Hines Ward. "Defense gives you a chance. You look throughout the league, teams who have great defenses are usually in [good] position. Offensively, it probably wasn't one of the better games [in Kansas City], but our defense gave us a chance to be in the ballgame and we found a way to pull one out."
Lewis would agree. It was something he learned nearly 20 years ago, not far from where he will be standing today.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @gerrydulac
Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/11338...#ixzz1fZdcQAFZ
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