Steelers can't sidestep problems against blitz
9/22/2008 3:31 AM
F. Dale Lolley
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PHILADELPHIA - There were a lot of players with heads hanging in the Steelers' locker room following their 15-6 loss Sunday to the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
The Steelers are used to getting beat. It comes with the territory in the NFL, where 10-6 is considered a good record and even good teams can expect to lose half the games they play on the road.
What they aren't used to having happen, however, is being physically beaten as they were by the Eagles.
Throughout the week, the Steelers talked about how Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson likes to send six or seven players after the opposing quarterback, overwhelming the offensive line and forcing the quarterback to throw the ball quicker than usual.
The Steelers thought they were ready for it.
Philadelphia sacked Ben Roethlisberger eight times before knocking him out of the game late in the fourth quarter, and added another against Byron Leftwich in the waning minutes. The Eagles just missed one a couple of other potential sacks that Roethlisberger was able to turn into one- or two-yard gains.
And the Pittsburgh quarterbacks were hit on nearly every play.
"They just kicked the hell out of us," said right tackle Willie Colon in none-too-gentle terms. "They smelled blood in the water and rolled the dice every chance they got. They just kept bringing seven."
Philadelphia seemed to get its measure of the Pittsburgh offense in the first quarter. Once the second quarter came, Johnson unleashed the hounds.
Roethlisberger was sacked six times in the second quarter. It's a number even more incredible when you consider Pittsburgh ran only 15 offensive plays in the quarter.
"They kept doing the same stuff over and over again," said right guard Kendall Simmons. "We've got five guys and sometimes six. You can only block one guy. I tried a couple of times to block two, getting a hand on both guys. It didn't work."
For all of that, the Steelers were still in the game late into the fourth quarter, thanks to a strong defensive effort that weathered a fast start by Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who completed his first 15 passes.
The Steelers adjusted to the Eagles' blitzing up the middle in the second half by having tight end Heath Miller go in motion and set up in front of Roethlisberger to pick up blitzers.
But even that didn't work consistently.
"We did that, but all it did was bring another guy up to the line of scrimmage that they could throw at us," said Simmons. "They just kept bringing more than we could block."
It's something the Steelers better get used to seeing until they figure out a way to block it.
Not all teams are capable of running that kind of defensive package, though.
Philadelphia has three outstanding cornerbacks in Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard. When the Eages blitz seven players, the cornerbacks are left in man-to-man coverage on the outside.
The Steelers' wide receivers and quarterback have to read the blitz and go to their hot routes - quick throws designed to beat the blitz.
But Philadelphia's cornerbacks got up in the face of the Pittsburgh receivers and kept them from getting open quickly.
"All 11 men involved - and it starts with the coaches - were involved in that," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "In the National Football League, when you put a display on like that, you're going to see it again and again and again until you make that problem disappear."
If they don't figure out a way to stop it, it may be their Pro Bowl quarterback who disappears.
Roethlisberger can't continue to take that kind of beating and make it through the season. And without Roethlisberger, the Steelers have not shot at winning on a weekly basis.
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at [email="email@example.com"]firstname.lastname@example.org[/email]