Back in 2002, the New England Patriots came into Heinz Field on opening day and handily defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-14. Only a Kordell Stewart touchdown as time expired made the score look better. It was that day in particular that many think a blueprint was created for beating the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. The following week, the Oakland Raiders came into the Steel City and beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 30-17. The gameplan they used was very similar to what the Patriots had done the week before.
In those two games, Rich Gannon and Tom Brady combined to go 72 for 107 for 697 yards and four touchdowns. Both teams used a lot of spread formations and quick throws to negate the Steelers’ blitzing defense.
The Steelers’ Defensive Coordinator was a guy named Tim Lewis. In the mid-1990’s he had served as the defensive backs coach under then Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau. Coach LeBeau would go on to take the same position for the Cincinnati Bengals in 1997 before being the Head Coach of the Bengals from 2000-2002. Lewis was a disciple of LeBeau’s 3-4 defensive system.
From that point on, LeBeau’s 3-4 defense had been exposed. This doesn’t mean the Steelers would go on to be terrible by any stretch of the imagination. They would go to three Super Bowls with LeBeau as the DC, winning two of them. The problem was that LeBeau’s defense had little room for error. Teams with accurate, smart quarterbacks could take advantage of the cornerbacks in his defense because they played so far off the ball.
Quarterbacks like Brady and Aaron Rodgers were able to spread the defense out and get rid of the ball long before the pressure ever got to them.
That brings us to last night.
Across the field from the Steelers was Titans’ Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau. Todd Haley came out with a gameplan very similar to the ones that had flummoxed LeBeau in years prior. He spread out the Titans, used the no huddle and let Ben Roethlisberger go to work. Now what cannot be explained is why Haley seemingly abandoned that for the rest of the first half before finally going back to it in the second. Watching Big Ben work against that defense and you were reminded of those Raiders and Patriots’ teams that drove Steelers fans insane during the LeBeau years.
Haley and Roethlisberger attacked LeBeau’s defense with one spread formation after another last night and spread throws around from Antonio Brown to JuJu Smith-Schuster to Jesse James. With the additional usage of Le’Veon Bell throughout the wide formations, the Titans were without an answer. Their pressure couldn’t get to Roethlisberger in time and they couldn’t cover the Steelers’ receivers either.
Football has always been the ultimate game of “copy cat behavior.” When you see what works for one team you hope that it works for you. The Steelers ripped that page from the book and for one night anyway it worked for them.
Photo courtesy: Sky Sports