Tuesday, May 15, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Forget whether the Steelers will run a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense. Are NFL offenses ready for their 99 alignment?
It does not yet have a name, but 99 might be appropriate given the tasks the player wearing that jersey number will be asked to do in some new defenses.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau hopes that Brett Keisel can do for his front seven what strong safety Troy Polamalu does for his secondary -- a do-it-all from all over the field. Keisel still will be listed as the team's right defensive end on the depth chart, but in new defenses LeBeau introduced at the minicamps, he can wind up anywhere, before the snap and after it.
"He's just technically a roving linebacker is what he is," LeBeau said. "He's moving around, depending on where we put him and tell him where to end up. He won't always be just rushing as he is as a defensive lineman. We think he can cause some offenses some problems."
Think Mike Vrabel and former Raven Adalius Thomas of New England, or Junior Seau in his heyday. All three of them are linebackers. Keisel is a 6-foot-5, 285-pound end with a linebacker's mentality and athletic ability. He led all Steelers defenders with 23 quarterback pressures last season playing in a 3-4 scheme designed for the outside linebackers to pressure the quarterback. His 5.5 sacks ranked third on the team, 1.5 behind leader Joey Porter (who had 12 pressures).
Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, said the defense did not put enough heat on quarterbacks last season, so using Keisel in this manner is a way to try to get more pressure, plus confuse the quarterback.
Keisel served as an emergency backup outside linebacker the past two years and can play there if they need him.
"He's shown us the athleticism that lets us know he can operate in space and yet present some pretty good problems size-wise up there at the line of scrimmage," LeBeau said. "We're going to try to take advantage of his particular talents there."
In the new defenses, Keisel can line up in a three-point stance at right end and, at the snap of the ball or just before it, jump up and rush from the left -- or middle -- or drop into coverage. He can stand up in his initial alignment anywhere along the front, then switch into something else.
"I love it," said Keisel, who cut his teeth on special teams before he became a full-time starter last season. "I think it just really causes the offense problems. They don't know if I'm rushing or if I'm dropping into coverage. They don't know where I'm rushing from. They don't know if I'm containing or coming up the middle. It causes a lot of problems for them.
"We'll do it out of the 3-4, do it out of the 4-3, we'll do it out of everything."
His teammates seem to love it as well.
"They just have him moving around, trying to get the offensive linemen to know where he's at all times," left outside linebacker Clark Haggans said. "Sometimes he's blitzing inside, sometimes he's coming off the edge."
Keisel said he takes his inspiration from Polamalu, who can cover an entire field even before the snap. Polamalu has lined up outside of left end and at the snap of the ball speed around right end to blitz.
"He comes up and acts like he's doing one thing and does the complete opposite," Keisel said. "He's the master at it, no question."
If Keisel can pull it off, it will give a new meaning to disguising defenses.
"When the defense is called, I know where I'm supposed to be at the finish at the snap of the ball," Keisel said. "We're just experimenting with some things right now and, hopefully, we'll run them right and we can use them."
LeBeau has used players in a similar way in the past, but never in his two tenures with the Steelers. He has to go back to the late 1980s, early '90s to a player named Skip McClendon with the Cincinnati Bengals, who was 6-6, 300. But McClendon only had eight sacks in his entire career.
Baltimore has done it a lot, although with Thomas gone to New England it might prevent the Ravens from effectively deploying those types of defenses.
"It's a lot of what Baltimore did last year, they caused offenses a lot of problems," Keisel said. "Hopefully, we can do the same thing."