“Right now you could say we’re the worst team in football” - Said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whist addressing USA Today in the aftermath of Pittsburgh’s defeat to the Minnesota Vikings at Wembley on Sunday.
A result that doomed Pittsburgh to an 0-4 start, the first time they’ve had the misfortune to entertain such a predicament since 1968, and to compound matters further, only one team in the history of the game, the 1992 San Diego Chargers, have suffered a similar fate and gone on to make the play-offs.
With the offense ranking 19th in total offense (342-yards-per-game), - 11 in turnovers, a desperately poor offensive line (ranked a lowly 29th at time of writing) that’s allowed fifteen sacks and twenty-two quarterback hits, and a defence that was once the staple of ‘Steeler Nation’ ranking 11th and conceding on average, 27.5 points-per-game, don’t expect them to join such illustrious company any time soon.
Given the defensive struggles exhibited throughout the course of 2013 thus far, one man who may bring a touch of much needed energy, power and presence come draft time, could be the much talked about South Carolina Gamecock Defensive End, Jadeveon Clowney.
Yes, there may indeed be teams in greater need of substantial defensive reinforcements than the Steelers, but this is a team that’s built its reputation on what former Steeler great Jerome ‘The bus’ Bettis termed a ‘bad-ass’ defense, and the aforementioned South Carolina Gamecock could be just the man to put the bad in bad-ass.
On the face of it, it may seem somewhat odd to tout the talents of a player that from a statistical standpoint at least, has tailed off in 2013, as evidenced by the drop off in production from thirteen sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss and 54 tackles in 2012 to just 12 tackles, three tackles for a loss, two sacks and one forced fumble through four games played thus far.
However, this supposed dip in productivity can be attributed to the fact that lot of extra attention is geared toward Clowney, thus allowing backfield contemporaries such as Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles (three sacks), defensive end Chaz Sutton (two) and six other South Carolina defenders to amass at least a half a sack.
So essentially one could say Clowney is largely responsible for the sacks and tackles for loss through sheer presence alone, despite the fact that teams are scheming by using multiple personnel to protect their quarterbacks from being devoured.
By definition, 6-ft-6", and 274lb Clowney (who also by the way, ran a 4.4 in the 40-yard dash during pre-season) assumes the position of defensive end in Lorenzo Ward’s 4-2-5 base formation, which consists of four down linemen, 2 linebackers, and 5 defensive backs.
Normally this would be called what’s commonly referred to in the trade as a ‘nickel formation’, but for reasons described below; this isn't really a nickel defense at all.
Here’s why - The primary difference is that the fifth defensive back is more of a linebacker/strong safety hybrid than a typical nickel back.
In a typical nickel scheme, the extra defensive back either plays a deep zone or covers the slot receiver in a one-on-one match-up. So, you could perhaps describe this scheme as a 4-2-1-4 defense: four down linemen, two linebackers, one spur, and four true defensive backs.
The most common defensive play-call in this formation has the four down linemen attacking the line of scrimmage and the two linebackers playing primarily run-support roles and covering backs out of the backfield. The "spur" covers the short-to-intermediate middle section of the field in a zone defense, the two corners play zone schemes on the outside, and the two safeties play a two-deep zone.
The beauty of this defensive set-up is having several players that can assume multiple roles that allow for one of the defensive ends to drop into short zone coverage after initially lining up at the line of scrimmage. This can give the defense the look of a 3-3-5 or 3-4 defense.
Which brings me back to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who’ve successfully run the scheme, and variants of it, since the 1982 NFL season, yielding top ranked defenses that on no less than five occasions, and have placed in the top five twelve times.
The 3-4 scheme has an immediate advantage over other well-known formations such as the 4-3, especially where it concerns defending the pass, due to the ability to have four linebackers drop into coverage instead of three, and by having the ability to rush any combination of linebackers and defensive linemen.
With the right personnel, the 3-4 is also superior to the 4-3 in run defense by having the three defensive linemen occupy multiple blockers, giving the linebackers free lanes to hit the hole.
What truly sets the 3-4 apart from the 4-3 is the amount of versatility it gives to the defensive coordinator and this is why Clowney and his incredible physical attributes would be such an asset for Dick LeBeau and the Steelers defense.
For example, on 3rd-and-long, the defense could come out with its base 3-4 defense, and midway through the snap count, Clowney in the role once assumed by the now departed James Harrison, would, in conjunction with LaMarr Woodley, put their hands in the dirt and rush the passer, or they could just as easily drop into coverage.
Jack Lambert 1974, read Jadeveon Clowney, 2014.
It hasn’t happened yet, but if it does, the ‘Steel Curtain’ may rust no more…
image: © Fidencio Garrido