When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Stephon Tuitt with the 46th pick overall, the consensus among the NFL pundits was “great value” in the second round. Hard to argue with them as i also believed he was a first round talent but what did surprise me is the fact they went defensive end.
After the Steelers pulled the trigger on linebacker Ryan Shazier with their 15th pick, many mockers including myself were sure that the next move was a jump up to grab one of the cornerbacks still left on the board. Ike Taylor is looking more and more like he will retire at the end of the season, consistency is not part of Cortez Allen’s mantra so a full time spot for him is not likely. Behind them you have more of a nickel corner in William Gay and safety Shamarko Thomas who was used as a band-aid last season. In the end however, the choice was Tuitt but in retrospect it actually makes the most sense.
Don’t ever tell Dick LeBeau you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. After 40 years coaching in the NFL (10 years with the Steelers) he decided to change his defensive rushing schemes and asked his defensive ends to rush the passer on the edge more than ever before in 2013. For a standard top notch defensive team like the Steelers, this is a dramatic change in philosophy.
The traditional 3-4 team of the Steelers only asks their defensive ends to occupy blockers, basically do the dirty work while the outside linebackers go in for the glory. What we saw last season however was LeBeau asking Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward to push upfield much more. By doing so LeBeau jumped on the current NFL trend of having “one gap” ends instead of his normal approach of having them occupy two gaps.
The result of LeBeau’s new philosophy was a 13th ranked defense, ten notches up from the previous season. Questions at outside linebacker for the Steelers is what most likely brought this change, but coming up with solutions to systems that don’t work is nothing new. That’s how the zone blitz was born. So how will the Steelers first and second round selections fit or add to the new look defense?
Well, here is where it gets interesting. As i mentioned earlier LeBeau was smart enough to realize a change needed to be made and he did so right away. What i didn’t mention was, the change was most likely due to lack of quality at the linebacker position. So when the Steelers were on the clock at the NFL Draft they selected the best ILB available and someone that fits their new scheme, Ryan Shzier.
With the release of LaMarr Woodley and only having Jason Worilds secured on the roster for only one year, Ryan Shazier is a no brainer. A highly productive prospect that can disrupt both the run and pass. Shazier will add the versatility required for the Steelers new defensive philosophy as he is comfortable playing behind the line of scrimmage with the option of shooting the gap. So when you look at the new philosophy of LeBeau’s and the 1st pick overall, it’s not that hard to discern that we will see the same 2013 defense that saw the Steelers jump up to the 13th rank last season instead of the 22nd ranked one from seasons past. The clip bellow shows us exactly what Shazier can do and how his patience allows the play to develop to gain the edge hence propeling him into one of the best ILB of the draft.
Now that the inside linebacker situation is seemingly resolved with Shazier, LeBeau can now really get what he wants out of his defensive ends, specifically new draftee Stephon Tuitt. With the new philosophy of having the defensive ends rush the passer more instead of the linebackers, the key here will be speed. Tuitt brings the kind of speed thats required along with the attitude of an under equipped over achiever he carries along. But what really makes this pick the perfect choice is the fact that Tuitt comes from a Notre Dame defense that clearly loves the two gap system and rushes the DE’s.
This diagram to the left shows the conceivable scenario we will likely see a lot from the Steelers come the start of the 2014 season. The gap assignments will include the weak side defensive end to be responsible for the B gap (between the tackle and guard). The nose tackle will look to penetrate the strong side through the A gap between the center and guard. This really makes it difficult for the offensive line as the strong side DE covers the tackle and the LB then runs through the opening (or B gap), forcing the RG (circled) to make a choice on who to block. Someone will be missed out there.
Take a look at how effective Stephon Tuitt is in the exact same scenario with the following video clip. The first part demonstrates how Stephon Tuitt is able to push up into the line forcing the tackle into a one on one while the OLB moves in untouched for the sack. The second shows you what Tuitt can do when lined up on the strong side. The tackle has no choice but to keep an eye on the inside LB to cover the gap giving Tuitt that split second to swing around the outside and come in for the sack.
In the end what the Steelers have done by drafting a LB and a DE with the first two picks of the draft, instead of going after a cornerback, was create the perfect scenario that matches the new philosophy of LeBeau. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that last season the effectiveness of moving into the one gap system was only stymied by the age of line, but with youth now injected into the defense with two perennial starters look for the new Steeler defense to either jump into the 20th ranking or at the very least scratch the door to the top ten. 2014 will be a the year of the defense and you can thank the old dog for learning a new trick.