Taking football seriously

My obligatory Superbowl blog entry:

“You can’t believe how seriously these people take their football.”
—overheard, “Gridiron City”

The quote above comes from an op-ed in today’s New York Times. The answer is, “Yes, I can believe,” because, like Holly, I grew up in Pittsburgh, and they do take their football seriously there.

The article does a great job explaining why: the rise of the perennially bad Steelers came during the middle of the decline of the Pittsburgh steel industry.

Pittsburgh is no longer that city: the largest industry there is health care; the largest employer there is the University of Pittsburgh.

My favorite Steelers fan

To understand Pittsburgh and football, consider my mom. After the Steelers lost the Superbowl in 1995, I called home and the first thing out of her mouth was, “That Neil O’Donnell is on the take.” You might think it strange to see a five-foot tall, ninety pound Korean professor of biophysics hopping mad about two interceptions, but no other Pittsburgher would.

She had a bad heart that would the inspiration for her research and her death. Often she would have to leave the room during most Steeler games because her arrhythmia would start acting up. Bill Cowher has an awesome record of winning when he is ahead, but the games never played out that way. Being forced to stop watching TV must have been trying for a woman who loved to tease her husband about how he “gave up” on the Steelers. As mom would say, “The Steelers always find a way to make games too close.”

That year was 1972, my parents had to move to Pittsburgh. It is hard to imagine now, but the game was not sold out. Because it was blacked out, my parents had to drive to a friend’s house in State College to watch Pittsburgh’s first playoff game ever—the Steelers were that bad for the first forty years of its franchise.

It was a low scoring game with a touchdown for the Raiders to take the lead in the final minutes. My father left the room because the game was lost, and then….

Umm, no, it’s not the reason I majored in physics.

Football fans in the Bay

Living in the Bay Area is rather strange because you’d think that in the place with two of football’s greatest dynasties, that the “West Coast Offense” is named after, they’d know more than a little about football, but you’d be wrong. Mostly the only ones that are fun to talk to are Raiders fans—but only if you don’t mention the aforementioned Immaculate Reception.

I’m sure that there are a bunch, but they are drowned out. In Pittsburgh, it is the entire frickin city! I think Cleveland and Green Bay are the only places like Pittsburgh in that respect.

Caitlin tolerates me.

Making light work of the Superbowl

I can’t say much about this year’s Steelers because I swore off watching football this season. I had no idea the Steelers were even in the playoffs until I was messing around with the new ESPN widget that appeared in the latest Mac OS X update.

But if I can perhaps try to make this year’s Superbowl more interesting for the Caitlins of the world who have to tolerate a football-obssessed significant other, then it would be to pass the interminable boredom between commercials learning a little about how the game is played—I mean ignore the people who shout about the referees at their TV and mindlessly root for “da Bears” or “the Stillers” for that matter.

You might actually find it interesting.

The “zone-blitz”

“Defense, Defense, make them scramble, intercept that ball.
Defense, Defense, keeps the Steelers always best of all!”
—Jimmy Psihoulis Steeler Polka

Here is my contribution from living in a white-collar city whose only remnant of its blue-collar roots is the style of play in its football team. It has to be, of course, the “zone-blitz” defense. For as the quote above alludes to, Pittsburgh cheers for their defense harder than the offense even.

This defense was authored by Dick Lebeau and it’s actually a lot of fun to watch when you know what to look for. Because unlike the Steelers of the 70’s which could afford to play conservatively because they could coast on their enormous talent, no coach today has that luxury.

Let’s cover a simple primer on basic defense: In a standard defense, you have four defensive linesman, three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties. This is known as a “4-3” which is just fancy talk for the four defensive linesman and three linebackers. The linesman are the biggest guys on the defense. Their job is usually to rush the quarterback and plug any holes opened up for running on the inside-center of the field (“between the tackles”). They may not be fast, but some of these guys are really quick and specialize in getting at (“sacking”) the quarterback. The linebacker is usually a little smaller and a lot faster than the linesman. Their job is usually to guard against the run on the sides and cover the short passing routes. The backfield then has a “coverage”: either has the cornerbacks covering the receivers with the safeties doing the same, rushing, or covering the run (“man-on-man”) or they along with the linebackers each protect an area of the backfield (“zone”). In man-on-man coverage, you can optionally have a guy (usually a linebacker or safety) try to “blitz” the quarterback.

Since many people consider the “zone-blitz” the “answer” to the “West Coast Offense” I should probably explain that first. The West Coast Offense is about timing and rhythm. Basically a team that runs the west coast offense (like the Seahawks if Mike Holmgren is coaching them) has extremely well-timed pass plays. When the quarterback drops back to throw the ball he’ll take the same number of paces and move to the same rhythm. In each “count” of the rhythm he’ll know exactly where every receiver should be in their route—this way he might see that his primary and secondary receivers are covered by two guys and can throw to the third without even looking, all before the defense even gets to him.

The standard approach was to double-cover all the eligible receivers. But if an offense couples this with an excellent running back in the “backfield” to force the opposing defense to honor the play action, you have an offensive plan that was damn near unstoppable during the 80’s.

It turns out the only reliable solution is to disrupt the timing. To do this you have to get to the quarterback, but how can you if he can release the ball so quickly, almost at will? You would basically have to get there before he even pretends to hand off.

The “zone-blitz” was the first such system to do so in the 90’s, normally run from a “3-4” which inverts the defense. The purpose of the three linesman is mainly to eat up blockers from the other team opening up holes for their teammates to rush in. Remember, in a standard defense the goal of these linesman is the opposite: to sack the quarterback and to close any running holes. Here the three linesman is hopefully just enough to create a sense of pressure on the quarterback and disrupt his timing.

Now you get an extra linebacker so you have more speed, but less size. What you then do is blitz one or two guys (usually linebackers) as the others drop back into zone coverage. The key to it is disguise—the defense that runs it mixes how many are going to blitz, who is going to blitz and who is going to drop back into zone, they mix where they are going to blitz from, they mix which areas of the zone they are going to cover. If the linesman do their job and create holes for the defense to run into and provide enough pressure on the quarterback, the timing of the quarterback is messed up. Runs outside the tackles are covered because you have an extra fast guy on the field. You also might get a lot of big collisions during inside runs as a running back runs into the same hole that a linebacker rushes through.

So what’s its weakness? Well it’s a live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword sort of defense. If you want to blitz, you leave a hole in your zone, or maybe their running back runs through a lane you didn’t want opened up. You just hope the quarterback is too rattled to notice. Once he gets into the rhythm, and he’s more likely too as the game wears on, you are living on seriously borrowed time—that’s about the time mom’s heart would start beating funny.

It’s times like those you need an offense that can grind the clock down better than they put points on the board.

But that’s another story…

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