Steelers strategy dictates fewer blitzes
Larry Foote, left, James Harrison, right, joke with Casey Hampton before the start of practice Wednesday at the South Side facilities.
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They run the same scheme. They have the same coach. They again rank highly among NFL defenses.
But no one calls them Blitzburgh anymore, not even close. That was a term used to describe the mid-1990s defenses that included an architect named Dick LeBeau, defenses that rang up a team-record 55 sacks in '94 and 51 in '96.
When it comes to sacks, Zipsburgh might be a more appropriate way to describe them this season.
LeBeau's current defense -- ranked No. 2 in the NFL -- has only 24 sacks, just one in the past two games. That puts them on a pace for 35 for the full season, which would be their fewest since they had 35 in 2003, when they had a 6-10 record. They haven't had fewer sacks since 1990, when they managed 34.
Where has the sack gone in the Steelers' repertoire and could that be a reason the defense also has produced such few turnovers?
Help is on the way. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley went through his first full practice Wednesday for the first time since his hamstring was severely injured late in the game Oct. 30 against New England. At the time, he was leading the AFC with nine sacks, on pace to break the team record. He's still tied for second, just 1.5 behind rookie Von Miller of Denver even though he missed the past three games.
"I was out there practicing again today," Woodley said. "I felt pretty good."
His replacement, Jason Worilds, had the team's only sack the past two games but there is little doubt that a healthy Woodley and James Harrison give the Steelers perhaps the best combination of pass-rushers in the league.
They combined for 27.5 sacks in 2008, more than any two players in club history. They combined for 23.5 in '09 and 20.5 last season.
Harrison has five this season to give him 54 for his career, fourth most in franchise history since the sack became an official stat in 1982. He missed four games this season with a broken orbital bone.
"I missed time, Wood missed some time," Harrison noted. "Between the two of us, that's 7, 8 games? That could be part of it too."
Part of the reason the sack totals are so low. There may be other reasons as well. Harrison and safety Ryan Clark say offenses are throwing the ball quicker against the Steelers than they have in the past. And players say they are not blitzing as often. Clark said teams obviously saw how the Saints, Patriots and Packers successfully attacked with quick passes last season and have copied it.
"People are trying to adopt that mode of operation against us -- 'Let's just get it out, hit the quick passes, take what they give us.' When they can't or when they don't, I think we generate good pressure."
Because of the increase in quick pass releases, Harrison said there's not as much need for sending five or more defenders after the quarterback.
"Some of the times we're getting there without sending pressure," Harrison said. "Some of the times they're getting rid of the ball so fast there's no need to send it."
Occasionally, pressuring a quarterback to throw earlier than he planned by bringing the heat can be better than sacking him, such as when it forces an interception as Harrison did against the Chiefs' Tyler Palko.
"The one sack I missed in Kansas City, he ended up throwing a pick. If I get that sack, we don't get the pick. Sometimes it's better to get pressure."
The Steelers did not sack rookie quarterback Andy Dalton Nov. 13 in Cincinnati. That has become more the norm on the road this season, where they have only five sacks in six games.
Hines Ward returned to start in Kansas City after he was demoted to No. 4 in Cincinnati the previous game. So, might Ward take another extended seat this Sunday since the Steelers are playing the Bengals again?
"I don't know. I just go out there and play. It's not about me," Ward said. "It's a story, but I'm not trying to make it a story."
It's a story because Ward had never been demoted since he became a starter in 1999 and because he was closing in on two revered receiving thresholds. He needs 15 yards to become the 19th receiver in NFL history with 12,000 yards. And he needs 15 receptions to become only the eighth to hit 1,000.
"I'm crossing my fingers," Ward said. "Fifteen in five games? I would never have thought getting 15 catches would be hard, but you know what? I just want to win games more than anything. I know that's a big goal. I won't stop until I reach that goal."
He emphasized that he does not begrudge his reduced role or the increased playing time of others such as Jerricho Cotchery, who benefited from more time against the Bengals.
"We have some young talent; they're great guys, they're on the cusp of becoming great," Ward said. "Cotchery and myself, we're proven guys who can make plays. Whatever they decide to do with all of us, we'll just go out and do it. You won't hear us griping about anything."
Cotchery caught a 16-yard touchdown pass against the Bengals and had another called back by a penalty.
The room at wide receiver became even more crowded when Emmanuel Sanders rejoined the group after missing two games with a knee injury.
"We have a lot of different personnel groupings," Cotchery said. "I guess we'll just attack them however we want to attack them when the game comes around."
• This will be only the fourth time since 1980 the Steelers and Bengals have met in December and each has a winning record. The Bengals won all three previous games in '81, in '90 and in 2005.
• Troy Polamalu and Maurkice Pouncey did not practice Wednesday but should be able to play Sunday. Besides Woodley, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester also went through a full practice after missing one game with a calf injury.
• Ben Roethlisberger said his broken right thumb is "good. No major setbacks, so moving forward."
• Harrison said his back is fine. He had midback spasms that tightened up on him Friday and he couldn't practice.
"I couldn't do anything Friday," Harrison said. "But I got it to where I could go on Sunday."
First Published December 1, 2011 12:00 am