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Opponent Overview: Pittsburgh Steelers

The best team the Hawks have played this year.

2007 Record: 3-1
2007 Point Differential: +64

Offensive Passing DVOA: 9.8% (12)
Offensive Rushing DVOA: 8.2% (9)

Biggest Offensive Strength: Balance

Defensive Passing DVOA: -25.1% (1)
Defensive Rushing VOA: -19.6% (4)

Biggest Defensive Strength: Balance/Deception

Special Teams VOA: 2.3% (14)

Biggest Special Teams Strength: Jeff Reed

Generic NFL Offense

That might not be very insightful, but it's a reasonable summation of Bruce Arians' approach to play calling. He isn't particularly run centric, though Mike Tomlin never shies away from sitting on the ball with a lead in the second half. Arians biggest claim to success is "developing" Peyton Manning. I'll leave that little factoid without comment. Arians isn't an offensive mastermind, he doesn't come from any specific tree and he's not innovating a whole new approach to offense. He's taken a little from the various coaches he's worked with, and now employs a very generic, somewhat aggressive, balanced offense.

Here are a few points of emphasis:

  • Ken Whisenhunt likes to get all his backs involved, but Arians is a more traditional ride till it dies, feature back play caller. Najeh Davenport has been very successful this season, but is still used almost exclusively in short yardage and during garbage time. Slight Willie Parker is on pace for 372 carries. Pace is rarely relevant, but given the Steelers success, it is noteworthy. Parker may not survive the season.
  • Arians calls a lot of power formations in the red zone. Multiple tight ends, fullback; doesn't run from them but passes. That's a little perplexing and it hasn't been a gangbusters success. Looking at Davenport and his skill set you'd think he could shoulder some of the red zone rushes if Parker cannot, but he's never been used that way in his 6 year career. Perhaps all the passing is simply a matter of necessity.
  • Don't expect the kind of trick play buffet favored under Whisenhunt. An occasional end around will suffice for Arians.

Fire Zone

I've come down on hybrid defensive schemes a lot recently, because like so many high concept approaches, the idea is better than the execution. Someone who has figured out a truly creative and practical approach to defense is Dick LeBeau. The zone blitz, well executed, is simply a thing of beauty. While it is often described as complicated, it would better be described as unpredictable.

The zone blitz, like Snakes on a Plane, lets you know exactly what you're getting. On each play, any member of the Steelers defense may rush the passer. It's not a blitz in the traditional sense, as Lebeau rarely rushes 6 or more defenders. It's more like a disguised pass rush. At the same time, on any given play, any defender may break into a zone. It's really no more complicated than that, but for opposing quarterbacks and linemen it can be confusing. With just those two tenets, a plethora of plays are possible.

The best way to describe the elegance of LeBeau's system is by diagramming two plays they ran against the Niners from a near identical formation.

First one is a run play. The Niners are backed within their own twenty, it's second and ten. The Steelers' formation is pretty basic. Three down linemen, OLBs up close along the edges. ILB tight in the middle. The Niners are in a power formation. Strong safety Troy Polamalu is given a ton of freedom to freelance. On this play he's shadowing the H-Back. The call is a cutback run. At the snap the linemen, offense and defense, move right. Frank Gore initially follows Moran Norris, but then cuts back finding a seam to the left. Polamalu moves up and tackles Gore for a four yard gain.

This time it's second and 5. Same defense, but the offense is in a trips right formation. Polamalu starts over the Niners bunch, but is playing spy. Again the OLBs are feigning blitz. The corners are deep, playing roughly eight yards off their man. When the play starts, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel play gap control, shifting the offensive line left. Aaron Smith pass-rushes outside right. The OLBs drop back into shallow hook zones. The ILBs cross right with James Farrior colliding into the pile and Larry Foote penetrating, colliding with Bryan Gilmore and then shedding Gilmore. Aaron Smith comes free from the outside and the pass rush overwhelms Alex Smith. Polamalu shadows him across the line, leaving only Gore in the flat as a viable receiver. Smith guns it to Gore avoiding the sack, but Gore is barely turned around and the ball falls incomplete.

The same look, but two completely different plays. Thus is the versatility of LeBeau's Fire Zone.