— On the surface, the Packers and Steelers have similar defenses: dangerous linebackers, crazy personnel groupings, all-angles blitzes.
Scratch the surface, and you find that they are still pretty similar.
Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers designed the basic scheme both teams use when they coached together for the 1990s Steelers. Both refined the system at other coaching stops, though LeBeau’s Steelers and Capers’ Packers still do many of the same things. Both coaches also took note of the other’s innovations and integrated them into their own defenses.
Here’s a by-the-numbers look at the similarities and differences in the Packers and Steelers front sevens, with a little help from the Football Outsiders Database.
Going for two
The Packers and Steelers officially use 3-4 defenses, but both teams are getting more and more mileage from a 2-4-5 personnel grouping; two linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs. The Steelers typically start games in a 2-4-5 set and use it as their base package against pass-heavy opponents. The Packers stay in their 3-4 until passing downs, but in today’s NFL, most downs are passing downs.
Even when defensive linemen are on the field, they aren’t expected to make many tackles in the Packers' or Steelers' schemes. Capers and LeBeau use a two-gap philosophy on the defensive line: Linemen are expected to control the gaps to their left and right instead of knifing past their blockers to tackle the ball carrier. That means linemen spend most games occupying blockers and clogging lanes, funneling plays to those superstar linebackers.
The grunt work keeps tackle totals low for linemen. Packers and Steelers linemen made just over 10 percent of their team’s tackles this season. By contrast, the Jets (another 3-4 team) got 23 percent of their tackles from defensive linemen. Only one Steelers lineman made more than 30 plays this season: defensive end Brett Keisel. (A “play” is a tackle, sack, assist, interception, or pass defensed.) For the Packers, only B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett made more than 30 plays. Across the NFL, at total of 110 defensive linemen made 30 or more plays, an average of 3.4 per team. Most Packers and Steelers linemen make less than two tackles per game.
With three or more linemen essentially sharing two positions, it’s easy for Capers and LeBeau to get the personnel they want on the field for any given situation. What few plays Packers and Steelers linemen do make are often strictly divided along run-pass lines. While great young players like Raji and Ziggy Hood stay on the field in most situations, Table 1 shows that Capers and LeBeau assign precise roles to some of their linemen, usually as run stoppers. Cullen Jenkins of the Packers sees more playing time as a situational pass rusher, a role typically filled by one of the linebackers on the Steelers.
Matthews equals Woodley
Clay Matthews is often compared to James Harrison because both linebackers have high sack totals. But when it comes to usage patterns, Matthews has more in common with Harrison’s teammate LaMarr Woodley.
Matthews rarely drops into coverage — he made 25 plays against the pass, and his average sack/tackle/interception occurred 2.7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. That means he is usually sacking the quarterback or chasing down a running back on a screen, not covering a receiver. Even Matthews’ lone interception occurred in the offensive backfield when he grabbed a deflected pass while on his way to sack Jon Kitna. Woodley made 26 plays on passes, with his average play occurring 1.0 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Matthews and Woodley typically act as the third or fourth defensive lineman in the Packers/Steelers scheme, the guy who lines up somewhere on the edge of the defense with only one thing on his mind.
What about Harrison? He made 44 plays against the pass, with the average play occurring 3.0 yards downfield. Mixed among his 11 sacks are a lot of tackles in coverage. Watch Steelers game tape, and you will be shocked how often he drops back instead of rushing. Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior made 107 pass tackles an average of 5.5 yards downfield. Their roles are roughly analogous to those of A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop of Green Bay (91 pass plays, 6.4 yards downfield), though Timmons and Farrior are better. The Packers do not have a player who lines up with Harrison; injured Nick Barnett was more of a coverage linebacker, and while Frank Zombo plays a Harrison-like role (four sacks, 13 total pass plays), he is not in the same category.
Both the Steelers and Packers like to keep four linebackers on the field as often as possible; they are more likely to substitute out their linemen than linebackers in 3rd-and-long situations. Matthews, Harrison, and Woodley get all the attention, but the others are often asked to cover tight ends up the seam or handle short zones against slot receivers. Capers and LeBeau will sacrifice the occasional mismatch for the ability to send blitzers from unpredictable angles.
The Eighth Man
One reason the Packers and Steelers can get away with two-man defensive lines is that both teams can easily bring an eighth defender into the box. For the Steelers, that eighth defender is usually Ryan Clark. For the Packers, it’s Charles Woodson.
Table 2 shows how Clark and Woodson compare to their fellow Steelers and Packers defensive backs at stopping the run. Clark made 38 percent of all plays against the run by the Steelers’ secondary; Woodson made 33 percent of his secondary’s run-support tackles.
(The “other defensive backs” include only the top four cornerbacks/safeties for each team in total plays and may miss a few plays by little-used reserves.)
Both Clark and Woodson make plays closer to the line of scrimmage than the other defensive backs. When the Packers and Steelers play “eight in the box”, Woodson and Clark are usually in the box. When Capers or LeBeau needs a “force defender” (an edge-of-the-line defensive back who forces running backs to cut inside), Clark and Woodson get the call.
What about Troy Polamalu? He gets some in-the-box opportunities, and his average running play occurred 4.1 yards downfield. But Polamalu made just 24 run tackles. The Steelers cornerbacks, particularly Ike Taylor and William Gay, often line up 8-10 yards off the line of scrimmage. Take away Polamalu’s ability to charge up and make a play from 15 yards deep, and the Steelers’ numbers would look even more like the Packers’.
Copycats are Coming: The Packers and Steelers may use similar schemes, but other teams have not quite caught up. Teams like the Browns used two-man lines at times, and the Jets will try anything once, but most other teams have not yet embraced the idea of using a 2-4-5 formation on 1st-and-10 or giving such challenging blitz-and-coverage responsibilities to all of their linebackers.
That will start to change, of course, now that the Steelers and Packers are in the Super Bowl. Linebackers are easier to find in the draft than defensive linemen, and teams will take note of how much success the Packers have had with just a few elite players (Raji, Matthews, and Woodson) and how long the Steelers have been able to sustain excellence with the same scheme.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Super Bowls were often showcases for the latest offensive innovations by the 49ers and Packers. This year, the game will unveil the state-of-the-art of NFL defense, as designed by a pair of master craftsmen.