The stretch: What is it, and why does it bring the Steelers to their knees?
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For most of the 15 seasons that he was head coach of the Steelers, Bill Cowher employed a defense that was among the best, if not the best, in the National Football League.
The unit spearheaded the Steelers to 10 playoff appearances, six division titles, six appearances in the AFC championship game and two trips to the Super Bowl during his tenure. Three of his defensive coordinators -- Dom Capers, Dick LeBeau, Jim Haslett -- went on to become head coaches in the NFL.
A former defensive coordinator himself, Cowher's primary mantra was always the same: Stop the run, a philosophy that continues to this day.
To do that, he constructed his 3-4 defense with linemen who could control the line of scrimmage and linebackers who could run to the ball. It didn't matter if the defensive ends were Ray Seals or Aaron Smith or the nose tackle was Joel Steed or Casey Hampton. And it didn't matter if the linebackers were Greg Lloyd or Joey Porter, Jason Gildon or James Harrison.
The Steelers could run to the ball and shut down the run.
But, whenever they played the Denver Broncos or any team that effectively employed a zone-blocking scheme, the Steelers always seemed to have problems stopping one play in particular:
"That has been the Denver Broncos theory, going back to Terrell Davis and Mike Shanahan when we played them in the AFC playoffs [in 1997]," Cowher said. "They were running the ball very well. They ran the stretch play, when people chop at your feet."
And the Steelers couldn't stop it.
The stretch is a running play that does just that -- stretches the defense rather than attacking it. It is designed to look like a perimeter play and get the defense flowing toward the sideline.
But, as the flow extends to the boundary, the defense is stretched like a Slinky, creating gaps through which the running back can cut. Or, as what happened last week on Arian Foster's 42-yard touchdown run in Houston, it stretches the defense so wide that a running back can cut to the backside after the wash of defenders has overrun the play.
"You're trying it against a team that runs and pursues and you use it against them," Cowher said. "As much as the Steelers run to the football, it works against them."
Nearly two decades later, nothing has changed.
The Steelers still can't stop the stretch play with any amount of consistency, especially the past two weeks against offenses that run the play as well as any in the National Football League.
And, it's more than possible they will see it again at 1 p.m. today when the Tennessee Titans (3-1) play the Steelers (2-2) at Heinz Field, even though the Titans have the lowest-ranked rushing offense in the league -- an anomaly every bit as mystifying as the Steelers' sudden inability to stop the run.
But, like the previous four teams they have faced in 2011, the Titans use zone-blocking schemes taught by their offensive-line-coach-turned-head coach, Mike Munchak, a former Penn State guard. And zone-blocking teams are the ones who run the stretch because the play requires them to block an area, not a specific man.
"When you have running plays that come right at you, that's like man on man, and when you get a disciplined team like Pittsburgh, you're not going to win a whole lot of those battles," said Cowher, now a studio analyst for CBS Sports. "You might win a couple, but you're not going to make a living with them."
One year after they shut down the National Football League with a rush defense that was the best in franchise history and the third-stingiest since the league went to a 16-game schedule, the Steelers are being shredded like a head of iceberg lettuce.
They have dropped from No. 1 in rush defense in 2010 to No. 22 after four games and already have allowed two 100-yard rushers -- the first time they have allowed two in a four-game span since 2003.
And the play that has hurt them the most is the same play Cowher had fits trying to defend -- the stretch, a running play that is kryptonite to the Steelers' Superman run defense.
"We've been running that on them back when I played and the last 14 years when I was a line coach," said Munchak, a former nine-time Pro Bowl guard who played 12 seasons with the Houston Oilers. "We run a lot of zone plays against them, so it's not anything they haven't seen over the years by a lot of football teams.
"Every so often, you are going to have games where teams are going to make some plays, defense is going to miss tackles and some yards are going to be racked up. To me, it is amazing that they have been able to do what they've done for such a long period of time. It happens to everyone on defense."
While that might sound like an obituary for the Steelers defense, Munchak was merely observing that some teams can often be vulnerable to certain plays. And, on certain Sundays early in the season, teams such as the Colts and Texans are going to gobble up rush yards against a defense that isn't accustomed to seeing its linemen cut to the ground and its linebackers split like an ax chopping firewood.
Make no mistake, it's not that the Texans rushed for 180 yards -- 155 of which were by Foster, the NFL's leading rusher in 2010. Or that Joseph Addai of the Indianapolis Colts had 86 yards on 17 carries the week before that. Or even that the Ravens rushed for 170 yards in the season opener.
Those numbers are alarming itself to a defense that is not accustomed to such generosity. So is the rushing average the Steelers are allowing after four games -- 119.5 yards per game -- nearly double the amount they allowed in 2010 (62.8).
But it's even more disconcerting that a lot of those yards are coming on one particular play.
"The biggest thing you have to be able to play is the cutback," Cowher said the other day on the phone. "While the play is designed to look like a perimeter play, it's really designed to attack the backside of defense. And to maintain the integrity, the backside almost becomes the front-side."
How does the stretch play work?
Basically, it involves the offensive lineman running toward the sideline, parallel to the line of scrimmage. The more the offense runs laterally to the perimeter, the more the defense gets stretched and the more the gaps grow.
It also prohibits defensive players from getting their shoulders square to the ball because they're running sideways, making it harder to react to a cutback. For the Steelers, that is a particular problem because they are accustomed to playing a two-gap style in which their shoulders are square to the line of scrimmage and they read and react to the run.
"We want to stay square," said backup nose tackle Chris Hoke. "When they try to run, we're trying to shuffle and stay square. It's tough."
Ideally, as the flow moves toward the sideline, the offense wants to use the backside guard to cut-block the nose tackle and the backside tackle to cut the defensive end.
For example, on Foster's 42-yard touchdown that gave the Texans a 17-10 victory, nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Aaron Smith were cut to the ground by right guard Mike Brisiel and right tackle Eric Winston, respectively, creating the backside opening that Foster needed when he cut back to the right. That left outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley as the lone defender on that side, and he got caught too far upfield and missed the tackle.
And, against the stretch, if one guy gets out of position, it can create a gap as wide as the Ohio River.
"A lot of times, we sometimes are too aggressive, we over-run the play, and they cut it back on us," said inside linebacker James Farrior, who got blocked by tight end Owen Daniels on the touchdown run. "Sometimes guys can cut off on the backside, a lot of times they're fitting in a lot of holes. If the running back is patient, he'll eventually try to find a hole and that's what they've been doing to us."
Looking for a sure bet? Expect the Steelers to see the play today against the Titans and Chris Johnson, another cutback runner who is probably the fastest running back in the league.
"Obviously, it's a play that can be stopped because, if not, everyone would run it," said safety Ryan Clark. "When you play teams where that's what they do, they're going to stick with their plays. That's the system they have. They didn't put it in to play against us."
It only seems that way.
"As long as we stay gap-sound, technique-sound and learn from the mistakes we had, we'll be OK," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We're going to get it until we stop it."
That's what Bill Cowher used to say, too.
First Published October 9, 2011 12:00 am