Troy Polamalu, Shamarko Thomas and Dick LeBeau’s Blitzing Concepts
When the Pittsburgh Steelers traded back into the fourth round of the 2013 NFL draft, they had given up a 2014 third round pick to land a safety out of Syracuse who would look quite familiar to their fanbase. Of course, there was no reason for any Steelers fans to know anything about Shamarko Thomas, but watching him on the field would instantly remind them of a safety they drafted out of USC back in 2003.
Shamarko Thomas is not Troy Polamalu and he probably never will be. However, he is a similar prospect who plays with great acceleration, agility and aggressiveness on the field. Crucially, Shamarko has the flexibility to do a variety of things in space, which is undoubtedly what attracted Steelers’ defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to him.
In college he lined up all over the field, just like Polamalu does now for the Steelers. His long-term projection may be to replace Polamalu in that role, but he could carve out his own role for the Steelers as a rookie. A role that could push Polamalu into more linebacker-like positions in passing situations.
Polamalu did this to great effect against the New England Patriots when they last met in 2011. That day he did it out of necessity, because of injuries, but nonetheless it could become a staple of the pass defense by choice this year.
Moving Polamalu to inside linebacker on obvious passing downs allows the Steelers to take Larry Foote off the field. Foote is a starting linebacker, but has also proved to be a liability in coverage since returning to the Steelers. Teams will repeatedly target Foote against slot receivers or receiving tight ends who he has no hope of keeping up with. For that reason, Lebeau looked to blitz Foote on a regular basis last year. He rushed the passer 189 times, getting to the quarterback four times.
Only Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Casey Hampton rushed the passer more than Foote. Sending him that often makes it a predictable call from LeBeau and because he has next to no ability to beat a blocker, that predictability renders him ineffective more often than not.
Now if Polamalu was in his role, things would be different.
Typically having a defensive back in a linebacker role can expose you to a big gain up-the-middle for a running-back, but Polamalu is not your typical defensive back. No team is happily going to target Polamalu whether i be with a pass or a run. Most offensive coordinators urge their players to do the opposite and work away from the former defensive player of the year.
From the inside linebacker position, Polamalu would be in the perfect position to rush the passer, something he does with much greater effect than Foote, or to drop into different coverage assignments. In the above image, the Steelers have four cornerbacks on the field: Keenan Lewis, Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay. This year they don’t have four cornerbacks they can trust in space.
Lewis left or New Orleans, meaning Allen or Gay will take his outside spot. Whoever is left over will move into the slot, but Curtis Brown has proven himself to be just a special teams player and it’s too early to expect the development Terry Hawthorne to play any kind of role on defense.
This means that there is a place for Shamarko in the dime and nickel packages, if they move Polamalu to a linebacker role in nickel packages.
Shamarko isn’t Cortez Allen. He’s a safety. He’s not going to come into the Steelers’ locker-room and immediately be able to play press-man coverage against some of the more physically gifted defensive backs in the NFL. However, he will offer LeBeau a second player who can play the Polamalu role in the defense’s blitz packages. Shamarko isn’t Polamalu just yet, but he does share similar speed and agility on the field.
LeBeau will use that speed and agility in very specific ways to disguise his coverage or at times to blitz the quarterback from unexpected positions. Last season, LeBeau blitzed his defensive backs 85 times. Of the defensive backs he used, only Curtis Brown didn’t rush the passer on at least one snap, while Cortez Allen did the most on 24 occasions. Significantly, Polamalu rushed the passer 14 times on just 405 total snaps. With Polamalu being a better blitzer than Shamarko projects to be and a bigger body to beat blocks in the running game, it makes more sense that Thomas will fill the coverage role that Polamalu has done so adeptly throughout his career.
Explaining Polamalu’s Coverage Role
Dick LeBeau’s defensive philosophy is based on confusing the quarterback. LeBeau believes in pressure leading to mistakes as opposed to sending every possible pass rusher after the sack. LeBeau wants the quarterback to hesitate and hold onto the ball in order to help his pass rush, while not exposing his secondary to a big play. He does this by using Polamalu’s speed and rotating the coverage.
On this play Polamalu is lined up directly over the center, just three yards from the line of scrimmage. This position, based on the overall formation, implies that Polamalu must be doing one of three things: Blitzing the quarterback, covering the running back or dropping into a zone over the middle.
The answer, eventually, is none of the above.
Polamalu’s actual assignment is to cover the slot receiver to the left-hand side of the offense. Even though the Steelers’ initial formation indicated that they were coming with a blitz from the right-hand side (of the offense) with only one safety deep and Polamalu doing one of the three original options, the Steelers are actually running another cover-two.
Ike Taylor comes off of the slot receiver to blitz the quarterback. William Gay, who was originally lined up deep over Nate Washington to the top of the screen, becomes one of two deep zone safeties. Lawrence Timmons rotates from the slot corner onto Washington, while James Farrior forgets feigning the blitz to cover Jared Cook in the right slot.
Once Matt Hasselbeck reaches the top of his drop, and his feet begin to come forward, Polamalu is already in position to intercept any attempted pass to his assigned receiver. Hasselbeck initially looked to the right, but saw the two linebackers dropping into coverage. That told him that the Steelers were blitzing from the other side.
The typical reaction to an overload blitz from either side is to throw into it. If Hasselbeck had thrown into the blitz without first fully assessing the situation, the Steelers would have tricked him into a turnover.
Instead, Hasselbeck holds the ball and is faced with difficult throws to every potential receiver. He eventually holds the ball too long and is swallowed by the Steelers’ pass rush. Polamalu played an integral part in confusing the coverage.
This is somewhat of a specialty of Polamalu as a player and is an integral part of the Steelers’ approach to defending the pass.
Polamalu’s place prior to the snap on this play is simply incomprehensible for the opposing quarterback. Once again it is Hasselbeck who must try to diagnose what Polamalu will eventually do. If he were to read the defense, Hasselbeck would believe the Steelers were in zone coverage because they are outnumbered three-to-two at the bottom of the screen, while Polamalu isn’t even looking in the direction of the spare man.
Polamalu is watching the snap and leaning toward the quarterback as if waiting to drop into a zone or sprint into the backfield.
The Steelers have been famous for their reliance on zone defenses under Dick LeBeau, however, over the past 16 months or so they have begun to adopt more man concepts. The additions of Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen in particular made that a possibility.
With Lewis and Ike Taylor outnumbered towards the bottom of the screen, Hasselbeck immediately looks in that direction to take advantage of any flooded zone. Instead Hasselbeck sees Taylor stick into the body of his receiver, as opposed to dropping back into a zone, while Lewis lies in wait for whatever receiver comes down the sideline.
At the snap, Polamalu pivoted and sprinted towards the outside to pick up Lavelle Hawkins in man coverage. Hasselbeck is forced to hold onto the ball longer than he anticipated again because none of his receivers are in position to catch the ball.
The combination of the changed coverage and the collapsing pocket causes Hasselbeck to miss a wide open Chris Johnson underneath. Hasselbeck instead looks to force the ball into a tight window between Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Hasselbeck would never have made the throw if he understood the coverage.
Against cover-two with man coverage underneath, it makes sense to drop the ball off to your running back in space because he will have plenty of room to take advantage of the open field, as Johnson did here.
Hasselbeck’s throw has no chance of being complete. Ryan Mundy and Clark are in good position to knock the ball loose from behind, while Polamalu should have intercepted the ball in perfect coverage. Polamalu didn’t come up with the interception, but outside of that the defense was executed to perfection.
Presuming that Shamarko is able to carry out the same role to a similar effect, then having both he and Polamalu on the field is going to make the Steelers’ coverage even more unpredictable. Neither Shamarko or Polamalu will be tipping anything to the quarterback before the snap and both can comfortably play in any area of the field. With William Gay and Cortez Allen able to flip between different cornerback spots and be good edge blitzers, and LeBeau being comfortable enough with his defensive linemen and linebackers to consistently drop them into coverage, the Steelers defense is going to be throwing the most confusing coverage concepts at quarterbacks by any defense in the league.
Any role for Shamarko would also allow the Steelers to keep Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor in positions that best show off their skill-sets. Clark has excelled in recent years as a clean-up free safety covering the deep area of the field, while Taylor is an excellent press cornerback who needs to stay near the sideline.
Rookies don’t often feature much for the Steelers in Dick LeBeau’s defense, but that tradition has been somewhat dying as of late. The Steelers don’t have the depth to ignore a talent like Shamarko and let him develop in the background. Robert Golden may have shown some promise last year, but he doesn’t have the same dynamic skill-set as Shamarko.
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has been brilliant so far with young players since he took over the role from Ray Horton two years ago. Shamarko is just the next in the line of young defensive backs who can instantly upgrade the Steelers’ defense.
You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf