It's the same only different. My best friend used to say that all the time as we traversed our teen years. It was one of the many funny, odd, and yet poignant things he used to say. I was reminded of this saying Monday when I heard Romeo Crennel talking about playing "a different defense than before" when the subject of his defensive line came up. Wait a minute, did we switch to a 43, or did Romeo forget that the Chiefs ran the 34 under deposed defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast? The answer is no and no; Romeo is running the same 34, but different.
Without going into the gory details of the history of the linebacker friendly defense, let's just say that when you boil down all of the different versions you wind up with two distinct versions of the same defense. It goes without saying (but I am going to say it anyway) that Crennel and Pendergast are not members of the same defensive tribe. It is also pretty plain that Scott Pioli is in the same camp with Crennel.
Okay you say, what is the big deal? It is still three linemen and four linebackers either way you play it. Why can't Pendergast coach players that Pioli drafted to play the same alignment? The answer to those questions can be found by watching a Steeler's game against the Patriots. What you will see is orchestrated chaos by hybrid front seven from the Pittsburgh side. You will also see militaristic discipline by the New England defense which is designed to stifle offensive options by having big linemen who can occupy the entire the offensive line with play making linebackers. Would you try a zone blitz with Tyson Jackson or Glen Dorsey? Neither would I, but that is part of the philosophical package that Pendergast brought with him. Last year at training camp he unleashed (unsuccessfully) a defense in which there were no defenders with a hand on the ground controlled chaos is the name of the game.
At the other end of the spectrum is Crennel's defense just control without the chaos. It is an outside linebacker filling a gap to force a running back inside, a defensive end forcing the guard and tackle on the same side to work in tandem to open a lane, a nose tackle pushing past the center and hitting a lead fullback further forcing the back to go to the gap that the defense chooses, and an inside linebacker stepping into that gap and making the tackle for a very short gain. It is a nightmare for quarterbacks and offensive coordinators whose philosophy is to "take what they give you." Playing the game three and four yards at a time requires a lot more patience than most signal callers have.
The big picture is that if you love a defense that hit the quarterback in the mouth. A defense that sends the offense back on its heels, and takes the ball from the opponent, and hands it over to its own offense, you are going to be disappointed. The Romeo Crennel 34, like Herman Edward's Cover 2, is a bend but don't break defense. The two drives directed by Matt Ryan of the Falcons in preseason game one should be considered a win since Atlanta only scored three points. This is what you should expect out of this club.
I know this was a very mean thing for me to write in the preseason. We are full of hope and curiosity, and I went and compared the defense to the Cover 2, which smelled an awful lot like failure and hopelessness while it was being played here. I assure you that is not my intent. On the contrary, I saw a lot to like last Friday in the Atlanta game.
I saw our defensive ends occupying blockers instead of trying to get into the backfield for sacks. This is by design. Last year Wallace Gilberry was probably our best DE in that defense. He is an a guy that quickly gets into the backfield, but this also means that the linebacker behind him will deal with the blockers that he shed if the play was a draw or screen pass. This led to long plays. In this defense, Tyson Jackson is a prototypical player. He occupies blockers, and keeps his linebackers free to make plays. When you watch either Jackson or Glenn Dorsey on the other side, keep in mind that it is a success if they are surrounded by two or three blockers at the end of a play rather than getting a tackle or sack.
I also saw pressure on the Atlanta quarterbacks because of solid coverage. The Pittsburgh 34 is predicated on pressure first which will mask mistakes in the secondary. This 34 plays a disciplined coverage system, and allows time for delayed blitzes to work. Last year, on numerous occasions the Chiefs sent Mike Brown flying into the backfield from the deep secondary only to have the passer play catch with a receiver because a linebacker wasn't deep enough, or the other safety was out of position. Last Friday, everyone was so well covered that Kendrick Lewis was two for two in getting credit for rushing an inaccurate pass.
The one thing that we still lack is that Teddy Bruschi type player. The inside linebackers in this defense should be stars. The blocking is schemed to be occupied by the front three, and they should be free to make tons of tackles. We saw some of that from Corey Mays and a bit more from Jovan Belcher, but the guys we need to see stepping it up is Derrick Johnson this defense is ideal for him.
There is still a lot of work to do for Romeo Crennel with this unit, but he has also accomplished a great deal already. He certainly plays a 34 like last year, but different very different.