PITTSBURGH, Pa. (CBS Sports) — If you’re a fan of smashmouth football, you’re salivating at this Sunday’s showdown between the second-ranked Oakland Raiders run offense and the first-ranked Pittsburgh Steelers run defense.
Oakland’s suddenly effective ground game has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this season. Darren McFadden, once a raw, oft-injured first-round bust has blossomed into a bona fide feature back. McFadden leads the league with 108.1 yards per game on the ground, and he’s amongst the league leaders in yards after contact. Bruising backup Michael Bush is also chipping in 46.3 yards per game.
McFadden’s success on the ground has come primarily on tosses and off-tackle runs (i.e. outside). The Raiders have utilized more six-man lines this season, and the athleticism of rookie left tackle Jared Veldheer has allowed for more movement-based concepts to be incorporated into the run-blocking scheme.
This is particularly noteworthy for Sunday because, as important as nose tackle Casey Hampton and strong safety Troy Polamalu are, the key to Pittsburgh’s run defense has always been the defensive ends. (This is one of the best kept secrets in football, by the way.)
While most 3-4 defenses prefer space-eating anchors at end, the Steelers have always relied on undersized but athletic chaos creators. Instead of commanding double teams on the edge through sheer power, the Steelers aim to command doubles through lateral movement. Essentially, if an end can be disruptive going east and west, he’s going to force the offensive tackle AND either the guard or tight end to engage.
This uncommon approach naturally breaks down a blocking scheme. When a 3-4 end simply holds ground, he’s reacting to an offense. By getting movement on the outside, the Steeler ends force offenses to react to THEM. Thus, the three Steeler defensive linemen dictate the terms of engagement against the five offensive linemen. Three on five? If that battle simply results in a draw, the Steelers win, as the numbers mismatch frees up the linebackers and safeties to play in downhill attack mode.
Of course, getting movement as a 3-4 end is not easy to do – if it were, every team would follow Pittsburgh’s blueprint. The Steelers have been fortunate to have two perfect veteran ends for their scheme: Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith (it’s not just lip service when Steelers coaches and players claim Smith is the defense’s most valuable player).
Problem is, Keisel and Smith are both out Sunday (Keisel is not yet ready to return from a bad hamstring; Smith is doubtful for the remainder of the season with a torn triceps). Recent first-round pick Ziggy Hood has shown flashes, but he’s an inconsistent starter at this point. And, by most accounts, journeyman Nick Eason was been ho-hum filling in at the other end position.
As effective as McFadden and Bush have been, a full-strength Steelers D-line would have little problem stifling Oakland’s rushing attack. But a depleted Steelers D-line levels the playing field. This is what makes Sunday’s matchup so intriguing.
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