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Steelers trying to keep defense disguised

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel pressures Eagles quarterback Michael Vick during the third quarter Sunday October 7, 2012 at Heinz Field.

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Seeing it coming?

Opposing quarterbacks' statistics against the Steelers' blitzes:

Quarterback, team Performance

Michael Vick, Eagles 12 of 18, 134 yards, 2 TDs

Carson Palmer, Raiders 10 of 14, 90 yards, 1 TD

Mark Sanchez, Jets 8 of 17, 90 yards, 1 TD

Peyton Manning, Broncos 8 of 10, 146 yards, 2 TDs

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Alan Robinson
Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, 11:02 p.m.

Chaos theory is a complex form of mathematics in which seemingly random events become predictable when precise equations are applied, but even the slightest variation can cause unreliable results.

The Steelers' defense is much the same way.

With its zone blitzes, multiple disguises and numerous schematic variations, the defense is designed to be as confusing to a quarterback as algorithms are to a college freshman. Remove the chaos and the mystery, and it becomes much more unreliable and unpredictable. And beatable.

According to several defensive starters, the Steelers repeatedly tipped their defense during losses in Denver and Oakland, thereby allowing Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer to decipher what was coming and to adjust to it.

The acquired knowledge helped Manning and Palmer lead a combined eight scoring drives in the second half against a Steelers defense that was much more effective against them in the first half. Denver scored 24 points past halftime in its 31-19 win on Sept. 19, and Oakland put up 20 points in the second half in upsetting the Steelers, 34-31, on Sept. 23.

Manning, operating a hurry-up offense, took advantage of the defense's tendency to line up too quickly and adjusted his play call to what he was reading.

Palmer was more deliberate, waiting out the Steelers at the line of scrimmage and looking for any hints about their blitzing or coverages before running one of several predetermined plays.

“Carson held it, we tipped our hand a little bit, and he got us,” linebacker Larry Foote said Tuesday.

On Darren McFadden's 64-yard touchdown run in Oakland, Palmer went to a hard count at the line of scrimmage and Brett Keisel, Chris Carter, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Clark all moved, signaling what the defense was doing. Palmer reset, then checked off to the run.

During the short week of preparation for the Thursday night game at Tennessee, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau emphasized the importance of keeping the defense disguised until the quarterback has no option but to call the play.

“We've got to be veteran enough to look at that (play) clock and say, ‘Hey, he's not going to go right now, he's going to gather as much information as he can (first),' ” LeBeau said. “The bottom line is we have to be smart enough to know how much time that guy's got, and when he's going to go.”

A quarterback can benefit most from knowing what coverage a defense will employ.

“You've got to disguise,” Foote said. “The DBs (defensive backs), that's their job to disguise and not show our hand.”

Nose tackle Casey Hampton said, “Guys just got to hold their coverages. You've kind of got to get a feel from watching film and knowing when they're going to snap the ball.”

On at least five occasions Sunday against the Eagles, Steelers linebackers prematurely showed blitzes; Foote did it four times and Timmons once. Eagles quarterback Michael Vick was sacked three times and fumbled three times, but he was 12 of 18 for 134 yards and two touchdowns when the Steelers blitzed. He was 6 of 12 for 41 yards when they didn't.

Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, filling in for the injured Jake Locker, has faced the Steelers four times previously, including the 2005 season Super Bowl.

“He's a quick rhythm passer,” Foote said. “A veteran guy like that, you can't leave anybody open, he's going to find them.”

What the Steelers intend to do is make sure he doesn't find out a whole lot more.

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