The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers are living a dream by playing in Super Bowl XLV (FOX pregame at 2 p.m. ET, kickoff at 6:29).
But neither team would have advanced this far without causing sleepless nights for opposing offenses.
"Looking at those (conference) championship games, those defenses were dialing up some stuff that give you a nightmare," Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said while scouting college talent at the Senior Bowl. "We’ve got to try and stay ahead of these defensive guys. It’s hard to do."
Blame that on the scheme that both the Packers and Steelers are deploying to near perfection.
For the first time in NFL history, both Super Bowl squads will field 3-4 defenses that are based around zone blitzing. The Steelers and Packers harass quarterbacks with a litany of linebacker and defensive-back pressures while using coverage packages that are equally exotic.
Such diverse looks will provide a challenge for the veteran Super Bowl quarterbacks, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. They can be downright devastating for less-experienced passers, as evidenced in the AFC and NFC title games.
Chicago’s Caleb Hanie, a third-stringer forced into action because of injuries, never saw B.J. Raji drop into coverage before throwing the interception that the 337-pound Packers nose tackle returned for a game-clinching touchdown. New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez was blindsided on a blitz by Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. The subsequent fumble was returned for a touchdown that gave Pittsburgh what proved an insurmountable 24-0 lead.
As usual, the Packers and Steelers were equally adept against the run in those contests. With three defensive linemen tying up offensive linemen, linebackers are freed to scrape and make tackles.
Suffice to say, Packers general manager Ted Thompson is happy he decided to follow Pittsburgh’s lead and switch to a 3-4 system in 2009.
"We think there are interesting things within our defense that makes it difficult to play," Thompson said. "That’s the reason we did it. The other reason is we were able to get (coordinator) Dom Capers, who’s very, very good at what he does."
Capers’ defensive philosophy was shaped from the time he worked in Pittsburgh during the early 1990s with Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau, who is considered the innovator of the zone-blitz scheme. Pittsburgh and Green Bay finished with No. 2 and No. 5 defensive rankings respectively during the regular season. The other 3-4 units – San Diego (No. 1) and the Jets (No. 3) – also had top-five rankings.
So why isn’t every NFL team running this style of defense? To start, it’s not as simple as it looks.
"You see a lot of teams trying to run the 3-4, but they aren’t successful because of the personnel," Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden said.
The 2010 Buffalo Bills learned that the hard way. The club’s attempt to convert from a 4-3 defense proved disastrous. Injuries devastated the inside linebacker position, and little pressure was being provided from the outside linebackers. Bills head coach Chan Gailey reverted to the 4-3 midway through the season, and his team showed marked improvement.
Gailey is now hoping to utilize a hybrid defense where "you show enough 3-4 just to make (offenses) mad but play enough four-man front to get enough big people against the run."
"It’s not easy to find the 3-4 chemistry right off the bat," added Gailey, who is coaching the Senior Bowl’s South squad. "We had to work our way into it. The longer we went, the more we realized we weren’t as successful against the run as we need to be … We were trying to put people in position. We had so many injuries at linebacker we were trying to mix and match to let guys do what they do best. It was tough on (coordinator) George Edwards and the defensive staff."
Buffalo also was maligned by the same kind of faulty personnel projections that hurt the Jets when they selected Vernon Gholston with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2008 draft. Bills brass thought their defensive ends, especially 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin, could prosper as pass-rushing outside linebackers. Buffalo notched only 27 sacks, and Maybin, like Gholston, finished the season as a healthy scratch on game days.
McFadden said the Steelers and Packers have both followed the right 3-4 defensive blueprint.
"You’ve got to have three D-lineman who are very unselfish, that don’t mind not getting any glory or making a lot of plays or sacks," he said. "You’ve got to have two outside (linebackers) who can rush the passer at any given time. The inside linebackers have to be able to put their heads in the furnace if they need to (attacking interior offensive linemen). You’ve got to have corners who are physical and can tackle. And you’ve got to have a safety who can roam the field and a safety that’s a big play-maker."
The quest to find talent that fits the bill is well under way at the Senior Bowl. Ten of the 14 starting players in the Pittsburgh and Green Bay front seven were drafted by their respective teams. Two top outside linebackers – Green Bay’s Clay Matthews and Pittsburgh’s LaMarr Woodley – each was converted after playing defensive end during his final college season.
Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan is preparing for the same possibility even though he was the 2010 Big Ten defensive player of the year as a 6-foot-4, 255-pound defensive end.
"It certainly would be an adjustment, but I’d be willing to make it," said Kerrigan, who is playing on the Senior Bowl’s North squad. "I want to be as valuable as possible and be available to all 32 teams. In my training, I’ve been working on linebacker drops and coming out of a two-point stance. I’m preparing for it, so at the (NFL scouting) combine I’ll be able to showcase my skills."
The 3-4 isn’t for everyone. Because an increasing number of defenses have adopted the system, opposing offenses may become progressively more savvy in finding ways to defuse it.
There also is only so much talent suited to go around for a 3-4 defense, especially when it comes to athletic outside rushers and hulking nose tackles. New Carolina head coach Ron Rivera ran the scheme the past 2-1/2 seasons as San Diego’s defensive coordinator but will be keeping the Panthers’ 4-3 as his base formation.
"As more teams start to run the 3-4, those types of dynamic players won’t be as readily available," Rivera said. "You may see the 4-3 coming back into vogue."
But at least for Super Bowl XLV, the zone blitz is all the rage.
Scott Linehan, Ted Thompson, Bryant McFadden, Chan Gailey, Ryan Kerrigan and Ron Rivera were interviewed by Alex Marvez and co-host Jim Miller on Sirius NFL Radio.