Lance Zierlein is a well-known analyst for NFL.com and the son of former Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line coach Larry Zierlein. I just happened to catch his periscope video, a 15 minute breakdown of offensive line pass protections with his father. I intended to watch just to gather some insight from a former coach but the conversation turned to the Steelers’ 2008 15-6 loss against the Philadelphia Eagles. If you haven’t repressed it into the recesses of your mind, the Steelers were sacked nine times that day.
Larry Zierlein revisited that game and discussed how the late defensive coordinator Jim Johnson was so able to generate so much pressure, a nod to his brilliance.
He opened by discussing the Steelers’ protection in a four wide, 2×2 set.
“Basically what [Jim] Johnson did was he that he knew with the Steelers, our QB knew if the defense had the free safety is in centerfield, we’re protected. Theoretically, a free safety in center field means they can’t bring enough people to outnumber you.”
He drew up the base scheme here.
With each defensive back responsible for his receiver, and a six man protection, mathematically, the offense was safe. With the safety playing deep, the maximum the defense could bring and still cover is six, meaning the offense had enough to block. Six on six.
The protection was “Dual Right” with the center responsible for the linebacker away from the running back. The back is responsible for the other linebacker, should he blitz.
As Zierlein tells it, the Eagles attacked this by blitzing the nickel corner and inside linebacker to the running back’s side. The right inside linebacker, the center’s responsibility, would buzz to the blitz side and wall the #2 receiver.
This puts the running back in conflict. He is responsible for the inside linebacker and naturally picks him up. There is no one left to pick up the corner blitz.
The former offensive line coach says they were caught off guard by the scheme, a new wrinkle he had never witnessed before.
“We would have been able to handle this, had we known that they were going to do it.”
Statistically, Brian Dawkins was the only Eagles’ defensive back with a sack that day but the induced pressure directly resulted in several others.
Game footage from that day is difficult to find. After a lot of effort, I found highlights from the game on the Eagles’ website. This is 2008 and unfortunately, the footage isn’t in HD.
This was already the fourth sack of the game and the Steelers next possession after being sacked three times on the previous drive.
As Zierlein drew it up, you can see the Steelers in a 2×2 look. The defensive back to the top of the screen would theoretically drop into coverage but Johnson blitzes him, replacing him with the inside linebacker, who you can see buzzes over in coverage.
There’s no one to pick up the corner blitz, creating pressure and a sack by Omar Gaither and Juqua Parker.
Though the Steelers made some adjustments, Zierlein pointed out it isn’t easy to suddenly scrap a staple of your protection.
“It’s not that easy to make adjustments in the middle of a game….not only for us to change our entire system, your entire concept, for this one thing that is happening during the game. It’s pretty hard to do.
He said they switched to a seven man protection, bringing in a tight end, which we can see here.
Roethlisberger was nearly sacked and called for intentional grounding – resulting in a safety – on this play, by the way.
He says the protection was removed the next season, the team opting to just slide in 2×2 sets like this.
I found the interview with the Eagles’ DC after the game and he responds to the first question by talking about exploiting the Steelers’ protection scheme.
“I did blitz more…it comes down to protection. And if I know a certain protection…we felt there were some things we could take advantage of.”
Zierlein sums things up well.
“It was a miserable day to be an offensive line coach.”
Fans felt the same way.