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Film Room: Steelers’ Rush Lane Integrity Critical To Defensive Success

Admittedly, this isn’t the sexiest topic to write about. But if you like the highlight reel plays, the sacks and big plays, they often stem from doing the little things. To create pressure, it all starts with discipline, rush lane integrity, and balance.

Before all the drawings, the schemings, and the stuff that looks cool in Dick LeBeau’s playbook is a breakdown of a disciplined rush. In laymen’s terms, as much fun as it is to draw up a blitz or fire zone concept, it still has to have integrity. Gaps must be accounted for, there must be contain, and no obvious escape lanes for the quarterback to flush or scramble to. The fewer numbers that rush, the more challenging this is

Here it is within the first 50 pages (out of 300, for reference) of his for three, four, and five man rushes.

Over the last several weeks, the Steelers have done a terrific job of this. Over that stretch, Sunday was the toughest challenge. To face a quarterback with the escapability that Tyrod Taylor has, and the way he’s produced, and then completely make his legs a non-factor is as impressive as it gets.

Let’s check out a couple examples from Sunday.

Here’s a four man rush with a cross stunt between the defensive linemen, Stephon Tuitt and Ricardo Mathews. Bud Dupree and James Harrison have contain responsibility on the edges.

And it’s executed well. Neither player gets caught up in the other when they stunt and they maintain their integrity. With a spot drop/spy by Ryan Shazier, there’s no way Taylor can take off. Even though Dupree is pushed upfield at first, he counters with an inside spin to help preserve his rush integrity.

Same idea on this next look. It’s another four man rush but with a T/E stunt, the three tech (Mathews) looping while the ROLB  (Harrison) crashes inside.

No bunch on the twist while Mathews does a nice job of staying on his feet and maintaining contain. Harrison walks the guard into the pocket to help collapse it.

The added benefit is zone coverage. I know a lot of people love the idea of man coverage but the added benefit of zone is having all eyes on the football. So if Taylor tries to take off, the linebackers are going to be able to converge in a hurry.

Another four man rush. Really well done here. Nothing fancy, just good contain on the outside with the pocket collapsing on Taylor. Nowhere to go.

As as Taylor looks to duck to his left and leave the pocket, Harrison has outside leverage and is able to keep contain, forcing the throw into the flats.

One last look. This time, at a fire zone. This is LeBeau’s/Keith Butler’s Thunder Fire zone with the safety and corner coming.

The backside end is responsible for contain to his side. Everyone slides down a gap to compensate, have balance, for the two DBs coming off the right (weak) side. Now the Steelers have balance. Two to the front side of center,three to the backside.

And a wrinkle the Steelers have added is either passively rushing a defensive linemen or dropping him into coverage. The former happens here with Tuitt just holding his gap and reading the QB, batting the pass down.

In late September, breaking down the Steelers’ pass rush woes, I wrote about an issue – one of several – with spacing and contain on stunts. Too much guys bunched up, too much chaos, and far too many clear throwing lanes for quarterbacks. Like these.

Compare that to what you’re seeing over the course of this winning streak and there’s no comparison. It’s night and day. And it’s the hidden reason why the Steelers’ pass rush has gotten the sacks they have. Butler is being more aggressive, players are winning their matchups, but the technique and balance is in a significantly better place.

That’s making all the difference.

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