Senior NFL Columnist

After Further Review: These Steelers know how to man up


Ike Taylor made the Steelers' man-coverage game plan work by locking down Wes Welker. (US Presswire)  
Ike Taylor made the Steelers' man-coverage game plan work by locking down Wes Welker. (US Presswire)  

Zone blitz is the basis for what the Pittsburgh Steelers do under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the man credited with creating the scheme by some.

Or is it?

It isn't when they play a team that doesn't scare down the field in the passing game. That's the New England Patriots.

The Steelers, who usually play a lot of zone coverage behind their attacking front, went to a lot of man coverage last week against the Patriots and Tom Brady. The result was limiting Brady to 198 yards and one pass play of 20 yards or more -- to a tight end -- in a 25-17 Steelers victory.

The Steelers decided to do what the Jets did to the Patriots in their playoff victory last season: Cover the receivers man-to-man because they didn't think they could win.

The Steelers used a lot of looks with six defensive backs and put Ike Taylor on Wes Welker. The Patriots, who run a lot of double-tight sets with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, couldn't stretch the field vertically.

On third-and-3 on the Patriots' first series, the Patriots put Chad Ochocinco wide right, Welker in the slot inside of him with Gronkowski in the slot left and Deion Branch wide left. The Steelers manned up across the line. From the shotgun, Brady took the snap and tried to hit Branch with a slant, but William Gay was all over him.

It was that kind of day.

In past games, Brady and Bill Belichick could scheme up ways to get people open. They used Hernandez on wheel routes when lined up tight. They split him wide. They create matchup problems with Gronkowski on linebackers.

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But the Steelers put defensive backs on those two at times, and it worked. Brady was forced to hold the ball more than normal.

Zone blitz?

Maybe the name needs changing. The Steelers showed against the Patriots they are more than capable of playing man coverage.

Film study (10 things I saw on the tape)

1. During the summer, Rams defensive end Chris Long told me how happy he was that coach Steve Spagnuolo moved him from right end to left end last year. Normally, right end is considered the pass-rush end. But Long said he was excited by the move because it felt more natural to rush the passer with his right arm being his lead arm and his left hand down. The Saints found that out firsthand last week. Long had three sacks, whipping starting tackle Charles Brown for two of them. When Pat McQuistan came in to replace Brown, he beat him with an inside move. Long has six sacks on the season. He had several other pressures against Drew Brees. He did get beat on a short pass to Darren Sproles in coverage out of the backfield when he was his man, but that's not his strength. This is a player who is improving each week as a pass rusher. The left side is his best side for sure.

2. I don't want to be too Rams heavy here, but I also want to give props to middle linebacker James Laurinaitis. He was outstanding against the Saints. He was all over the field. On one two-play sequence, he dropped running back Chris Ivory for a short gain and then tipped a pass 7 yards down the field as a receiver was coming open. Later in the game, he tipped a pass away 15 yards down the field. He also had a sack and totaled 10 tackles. Laurinaitis is a rising star. It's too bad he plays in the same division with San Francisco's Patrick Willis. He will likely be overshadowed his entire career. But it's time he gets some Pro Bowl love. He's that good. Just ask the Saints.

3. You want to know why it's so hard to be an NFL offensive tackle? You can have a great game, miss one block and give up a sack, and the public will think you struggled. Carolina right tackle Jordan Gross is living that story this week. Gross dominated Jared Allen last week in Carolina's loss to the Vikings. He was sensational in pass protection, even throwing Allen, the NFL sack leader, to the ground on one pass play. But Allen did get him for a sack to the outside and forced a fumble from Cam Newton. It was a big play for sure, but it was Allen's only real win against Gross. That's why it's tough sometimes to be a lineman in the NFL.

4. Every week on the 49ers defense, another player seems to flash. This week, it was outside linebacker/defensive end Ahmad Brooks. He blew by Browns tackle Tony Pashos for one sack then ran over Browns running back Chris Ogbonnaya for another. Brooks seems to be the perfect outside linebacker for Vic Fangio's version of the 3-4 scheme. Not bad for a guy who came in as an inside linebacker. The 49ers also use some 4-man lines. When they do, Brooks puts his hand on the ground and becomes a defensive end.

5. The more I watch the Cincinnati defensive line, the more I am impressed. The two young guys who really stand out are end Carlos Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins. Those two second-year players key an aggressive front that was dominant against the Seahawks last week. Atkins got an early sack with an explosive up-field move and Dunlap spent the day in the Seattle backfield. Keep an eye on those two in the second half. They might form the best young tackle-end duo in the league.

6. The Patriots secondary is taking a lot of heat for getting carved up by Roethlisberger on Sunday. But the real problem is the lack of a pass rush. They have nobody who really influences the quarterback. How many times did Roethlisberger get to pull the ball down and scan the field before making a throw? Even one of their two sacks, by end Andre Carter, was a coverage sack. On Roethlisberger's second touchdown pass, to Antonio Brown, the Patriots rushed three, never got close and Brown worked free for the touchdown on the left side of the field. He was wide open and fell into the end zone. One thing you used to be able to count on from a Bill Belichick defense was pressure. Not anymore.

7. I have been praising Bills safety George Wilson all season. He always shows up. Watching him live against the Redskins, I appreciate him even more. He is a good football player. He has a nose for the ball. A former receiver, he also tackles better than you would think for a guy who made a position move. If Wilson isn't in the Pro Bowl this year, it might be a crime.

8. At that same game, I watched a Washington offensive line that had as bad a day as I've seen. They gave up nine sacks to a Bills team that had four coming into the game. The Redskins were playing with two backups in Will Montgomery and Sean Locklear, but it shouldn't have been that bad. Montgomery was really bad, right tackle Jammal Brown struggled and Locklear had a bad day. Re-watching the game, it looked even worse than seeing it live. Quarterback John Beck did hold the ball some to help the Bills, but the line was whipped.

9. In 2010, Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata was one of the best defensive players in the NFL. The past two games, he sure hasn't looked like it. He was blocked all game by the Jaguars in the Monday night loss, but he wasn't much of a factor against Arizona on Sunday either. The Cardinals handled him with single blocks some of the time. Ngata did get a pressure, but that came after Terrell Suggs forced Kevin Kolb up in the pocket. He also got a hit on Kolb that forced a fumble, but even that came after he circled back after being blocked out of the play. That play was nullified by a penalty on the Ravens. Ngata just doesn't seem as powerful as he has been in the past.

10. One of the more underrated corners in the league this season is Corey Webster of the Giants. He played Brandon Marshall in man coverage almost the entire game last week against Miami and did a nice job. Marshall had four catches for 55 yards, but was hounded all day by Webster and got called for pushing off on him. Webster got a late pick to seal the game. Webster has really elevated his game after the loss of Terrell Thomas in the preseason.

Spotlight on Bills receiver Steve Johnson

Will Johnson find himself on Revis Island this week?

The Bills play the Jets, Johnson is his team's best receiver and Jets corner Darrelle Revis usually covers the other team's best receiver, so it makes sense.

"If he does, he does," Johnson said. "That would mean I would be in man coverage. I'll take that."

Even if it's Revis, it's better than being doubled, right?

"You know it," Johnson said. "I know what I can do. If he's on me, it will be a challenge, but I'm ready for it."

Johnson has 39 catches and four touchdowns, but he's healthy now after being bothered by a bunch of nagging injuries earlier this season. If Buffalo is to beat the Jets this week, Johnson will have to win his individual battle against Revis -- if he is indeed on him.

Revis Island isn't such a scary place for Steve Johnson.

Hot Tub

1. Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin: After doing little against the Jaguars on Monday night, Boldin came up big for the Ravens against the Cardinals, his former team.

2. Browns defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin: He isn't a household name, but he's a heck of a football player. He made some nice stops against the 49ers.

3. 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree: He is starting to look like a big-time receiver. Crabtree looks leaner and faster and it's showing up. He is running his routes better than in the past, and you can see he's putting in the work.

4. Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus: Moving to nose tackle seems to be a good thing for him. He had 2½ sacks and was dominant all day against the Redskins. Seeing it with my own eyes was impressive.

5. Jaguars defensive tackle Tyson Alualu: He is playing on a bad knee, which has earned him some criticism, but he played well against the Texans. He is a good player who takes far too much heat because of where he was drafted.

Cold Tub

1. Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert: He has passed for less than 100 yards in each of the past two games. He also threw two picks against the Texans.

2. Broncos right tackle Orlando Franklin: The rookie had a rough go of it with Cliff Avril. He couldn't contain him off the edge. Avril had two strip-sacks and returned one for a score.

3. Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh: I hate to keep putting him here, but he had one assist against Denver. One assist? He isn't playing like he did as a rookie.

4. Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow: He regressed from the ugly performance from the week before. And that's saying something.

5. Chargers left tackle Marcus McNeil: He was a spinning top against Tamba Hali and he had a load of penalties. He's better than that.

Three and outs

My top three NFL prospects from the Alabama-LSU game

1. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU: He is a smooth corner with good size. Should be the first corner taken next spring.

2. Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU: He is only a sophomore, but he is a freakish pass rusher. Keep an eye on him.

3. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama: He is the top-rated back in the country, but we know backs don't usually go that high. I think he's better than Mark Ingram.

Three eye-opening stats

1. The Colts are 31st in sacks per pass play on defense. That's what not playing with a lead does to a team.

2. The Lions are the only team to score on all of their red-zone possessions. They are a perfect 25 for 25.

3. Despite being in first place, the Steelers are minus-10 in giveaway/takeaway ratio, which is last in the league.

Tweets at me

1. From @JWaeghe: @PriscoCBS you acting like you know anything about football is comical

2. From @BQme: @PriscoCBS they pay u to create those power rankings? Giants #4? At least 10 teams behind them would be favored on neutral field. Weak

3. From Ace__Rothstein: @PriscoCBS Your commentary is among the best on twitter

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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