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Sunday, February 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Steelers' plan of attack

Seattle Times staff reporter

DETROIT — Legendary Ohio State coach Woody Hayes might be best-known for his "three yards and a cloud of dust" offensive philosophy that is the epitome of conservative football.

But contrary to that reputation, when it came to defense, Hayes liked to let it rip.

"He was a no-nonsense, get after it, pressure-on-the-ball football coach," said Dick LeBeau, who played cornerback for Hayes in the 1950s.

Now the defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who face the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL, LeBeau has never wavered much from Hayes' philosophies in his years as an assistant or head coach in the NFL.

"I think pressure on the ball is the best way to go," LeBeau said.

That's one reason LeBeau has stuck with a 3-4 defense, one used by few other NFL teams these days, most of which go with a 4-3. In a 4-3, there are four defensive linemen and three linebackers. A 3-4 uses three linemen and four linebackers.

LeBeau thinks the 3-4 gives his team "a little more variety" in the ways it can send a blitzing player after the opponent's quarterback.

LeBeau became the architect of what came to be known as "zone blitzes." Those are blitzes in which the defense disguises who is rushing — for instance, a linebacker who appears lined up in pass coverage will blitz while a lineman drops back into coverage.

"You can hide who the fourth rusher is a little bit more," said Pittsburgh linebackers coach Keith Butler, a former Seahawks player.

It has worked so well that the Steelers have gotten the nickname "Blitzburgh" for their willingness and success at blitzing.

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"We like to blitz and we're Pittsburgh, so yeah, that [name] is fine with me," LeBeau said.

The Steelers ranked near the top of the NFL in most major defensive categories this season while using the 3-4.

And the fact that the Seahawks struggled against the 3-4 the only time they faced a good team that uses it — the Dallas Cowboys — has put a heavy spotlight on that matchup this week. Seattle scored just three points in the first 58:34 against the Cowboys before rallying to win 13-10.

But the Seahawks counter there were other reasons for their struggles that day — specifically, the receiving corps was particularly banged up.

And Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens said such regular-season results are meaningless and that the 3-4 could work to Seattle's advantage.

"It presents some different challenges, but it gives us some great blocking angles," Stevens said. "We'll have [Seattle left tackle] Walter Jones going against [Pittsburgh linebacker] Joey Porter, and I think you and I know who's going to win that matchup."

Stevens also said the 3-4 "tells you exactly where they are coming from. The linebackers are going to line up in the same position most of the time and they are going to come from the edges most of time. We feel we have a good grasp of what they are going to do. I'm sure they will make a couple of adjustments, but I don't think they will totally change for the Super Bowl."

Maybe not, but LeBeau has been versatile with his game plans. Pittsburgh attacked virtually non-stop when it beat Indianapolis and Peyton Manning in the second round of the playoffs, but played a bit more cautiously against Denver and Jake Plummer — who's a better runner than Manning — in the AFC championship game.

LeBeau said simply that "we have a lot of defense. That's why it appears that way. But we are just running our defense every week."

Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said he doesn't think the Seahawks will see anything they've never played against before.

"We have rules for a 3-4 defense, and we didn't have to invent anything new this week," Hasselbeck said.

Besides, Seattle players say it's the personnel more than the scheme that makes the Steelers dangerous.

Steelers players say the key to the whole thing is nose tackle Casey Hampton, who consistently requires a double-team up the middle, freeing up the middle for a linebacker and letting the outside rushers go one-on-one. Maybe even more critical is the play of strong safety Troy Polamalu, a USC graduate who covers an uncommon amount of ground with uncommon speed.

"They have very good players, and they have speed with those players," said Seahawks offensive coordinator Gil Haskell. "They start with three big men inside, and it takes two men to move them out. They have four athletically physical linebackers that are strong men. And then No. 43 [Polamalu] can move any place he wants to, and he makes plays. ... Really, their personnel is excellent."

As much as he likes his scheme, LeBeau doesn't argue that it's the people more than the plan.

"I do think with their athletic ability and the way they play together, they would be right here [in the Super Bowl] no matter what defense we ran," he said.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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