PITTSBURGH - Don't expect the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive linemen to look downfield very often when they face the Atlanta Falcons, even if Michael Vick or Warrick Dunn takes off on a long run.
They'll be too busy protecting themselves from one of the league's most aggressive blocking teams - a Falcons offensive line that has been criticized by at least three teams in the last year for its cut blocking techniques.
"You have to be ready for it," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "You have to understand that's what they're going to do. If you're not, you're going to get cut and you're not going to make the play."
The Steelers (2-3) also occasionally employ the technique, in which an offensive lineman blocks below the waist - normally, at knee level - to force a defender to drop his hands and, at times, sweep him off his feet.
The Falcons lead the NFL in rushing by a wide margin and are renowned for mastering the scheme. Titans coach Jeff Fisher complained to the NFL about the Falcons' blocking last year, and the Carolina Panthers were upset when two defensive linemen were hurt after being cut block by the Falcons. Tampa Bay also was unhappy with how the Falcons blocked.
"Yeah, it works," Keisel said. "They're the top rushing team in the league."
The Denver Broncos were among the first teams to popularize cut blocking, when Alex Gibbs was their offensive line coach. Gibbs has been a consultant to Falcons coach Jim Mora for two seasons after installing the blocking scheme as Atlanta's offensive line coach in 2004.
That same season, Steelers coach Bill Cowher criticized the Broncos for going over the line with their blocking after Denver offensive lineman George Foster broke Cincinnati defensive lineman Tony Williams' ankle by driving at him below the knees.
"It's a very competitive game that we play, but within that there are certain lines you don't go over," Cowher said.
Cowher's criticism surprised Denver coach Mike Shanahan, since the Steelers and Broncos did not play that season. Shanahan subsequently staged a film room session for Denver reporters, showing how the Steelers - All-Pro-guard Alan Faneca in particular - also employed the technique.
The Falcons (3-2) have used it while rushing for 1,160 yards in five games. No other team has rushed for more than 791 yards.