Ends Smith, Keisel justify Steelers' 3-4 defense

December 7, 2006

Derek Anderson could make his first NFL start at quarterback for the Cleveland Browns when they play tonight at Heinz Field. Traditionally, the Steelers' defense welcomes a new quarterback the way Dobermans do a pork chop.

Last December, it was Charlie Frye, then a rookie starter for the Browns, who felt the teeth of the Steelers' defense when he was sacked eight times. Sunday, it was Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski, a rookie starter for Tampa Bay who was sacked five times and intercepted three times.

The Steelers have 34 sacks, fourth most in the AFC. Statistically, they are close to last season's pace when they rang up 47 sacks in 16 games and ahead of 2004 when they had 41.

Lately, though, it has been all or nothing for their pass rush. In their past eight games, they had no more than one sack in five of them. And there's a different feel about their pass rush this season because most of the pressure on the quarterback has come from the ends and not the outside linebackers.

The 3-4 defense, the kind the Steelers have run for more than 20 years, can make stars of linebackers and send ends into anonymity.

Not many ends who played for the Steelers the past two decades remain memorable today. Yet fans still wear jerseys of those who thrived in the 3-4, players such as Mike Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon and Joey Porter -- all former Pro Bowl outside linebackers. "I think generally the outside linebackers get opportunities at a few more sacks," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the architect of the zone blitz.

It's the system. But in that same 3-4 defense today, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are fighting the system. They play defensive end, and that is where most of the pressure has come this season. Smith and Keisel have combined for 7.5 sacks. That's fewer than the 12.5 outside linebackers Joey Porter and Clark Haggans have produced, but they dominate another statistic -- the quarterback hurry/pressure.

"It's anything that affects the quarterback's ability to have clear vision, step and release the ball," LeBeau said, explaining what constitutes a quarterback pressure. "You're getting good pressure and altering what he wants to do, so he's not throwing like he would be on a 7-on-7 drill."

Defenders still prefer the old-fashioned sack, but a pressure can lead to other good things for a defense, such as an interception or incompletion.

"I'd rather have a sack, you know, but it's a statistic we keep here and any statistic is a good stat," Keisel said. "We're not supposed to get sacks."

Ends in the 4-3 defenses are the ones who get them, players such as Julius Peppers of Carolina, the NFL leader. Porter led NFL linebackers last season with 10.5 sacks. Three of his seven this season have come in the past three games.

Still, it has been Smith and Keisel who have provided the Steelers with most of the pressure this season. Smith has done it before.

Twice he has had eight sacks in a season, most recently in 2004 when he made the Pro Bowl. His 33 career sacks rank 11th in club history. Only one Steelers defensive end who played in the 3-4 the past two decades has more -- Keith Willis, with 59.

Smith also led the Steelers with 22 pressures last season (Porter was second with 15) and was second in 2004 with 22 to Porter's 25.

"I think Aaron Smith is one of the more underrated players in the National Football League and I felt that for some years," LeBeau said. "I just don't see him blocked very often."

Keisel, in his fifth NFL season, has exceeded expectations. The Steelers chose to keep him and let von Oelhoffen go in free agency in March. "I would say for two years he was one of our most improved players and I think that growth has continued to exhibit itself," LeBeau said. "From the end of last year through our really strong stretch run there he was a tremendous pass rusher. He made some great sacks and forced plays in all those playoff games."