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Two defenses put QBs in the crosshairs Pass rushers for both teams bring the heat

DETROIT -- They do it in different ways, but the defenses for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks have the same objective: pressure the quarterback.

Both teams believe that whoever does it better will win Super Bowl XL.

"If any quarterback has time to throw, nine times out of 10 he's going to make plays," Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans said. "Our job is to get to the quarterback and rattle his cage a little bit."

"Our ability to put pressure on the quarterback has been a big key to our success as a defense," Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard said. "Like they say, a great pass defense starts with a great pass rush."

No one rushed the quarterback better than the Seahawks, whose 50 sacks in the regular season led the NFL. The had four more in two playoff games. The Steelers weren't too far behind. They finished the season with 47 sacks and have added 12 more in three playoff games.

Both teams' ability to limit running teams is a reason their pass rushes are so lethal. The Steelers were third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and first in average yards per carry, while the Seahawks were fifth in both categories.

"You have to be able to stop the run first and foremost," Seahawks defensive end Bryce Fisher said. "If you can do that, an offense becomes one-dimensional. When that one dimension is the pass, it allows us to pin our ears back and come after the quarterback."

Counting the playoffs, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked just 28 times in 19 games, while opponents have dropped Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck only 26 times in 18 contests.

Both teams' secondaries are vulnerable to big plays (Seattle was only 27th against the pass and Pittsburgh was 16th). But opposing quarterbacks usually don't have time to exploit the weakness. If Roethlisberger and Hasselbeck don't get good protection, it could be a long evening for both of them. Both teams were among the league's best in turnover ratio.

"Watching their defense, they're fast and they're physical," Roethlisberger said. "They are always flying around and making plays. This very well could be our toughest test on offense."

"I think the Steelers have a great defense," Hasselbeck said. "They are obviously well coached. They play really well together. They would not be in this game if they weren't a great defense. This game, in terms of preparation, is just like all of the other games we have had this year. But these guys make you prepare a little bit more because of the things they do."

The Steelers' aggressive, attacking 3-4 defense is orchestrated by coordinator Dick LeBeau, the architect of the modern zone blitz. The scheme, which has been copied -- but never duplicated -- by nearly every team in the NFL, turns linebackers and defensive backs into pass rushers and drops defensive linemen into coverage.

LeBeau came up with the zone blitz concept after a 1988 meeting with former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger, who was then athletics director at the University of Florida.

LeBeau said the defense was born out of necessity. He was defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals when they lost to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII in 1988. The 49ers featured Bill Walsh's West Coast offense, the same one used by Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren.

Coaches like Walsh changed offenses so much that defenses had to be more innovative to stop them. The zone blitz confuses offenses that rely on pre-snap reads.

LeBeau learned the blitz as a defensive back in Detroit. In a 1962 Thanksgiving Day game, he was part of a Don Shula-coordinated defense that sacked Green Bay's Bart Starr 11 times (still a Lions record) during a 26-14 Lions victory over the 10-0 Packers.

"We're all a product of our environment," LeBeau said. "I've always been a pressure-on-the-ball guy. I just think pressure is the way to go."

LeBeau's blitzes are troublesome because he sends people from all directions. It might be a safety or cornerback. Outside linebackers Joey Porter and Haggans lead the Steelers with 10 1/2 and nine sacks, respectively, but 15 players have at least one.

The secret to the zone blitz lies in its unpredictability.

"If you know the middle 'backer or the corner is blitzing it's easy to pick up," Porter said. "But on our defense you don't know who is coming. It could be anyone on any play. When it's like that, everyone has to be accounted for. We show the same look every time, so it makes it hard for you to pick it up."

The Seahawks also spread the wealth when it comes to sacks as 11 guys have at least one and no one has more than nine.

Much of their pressure is generated by their defensive line. Fisher leads the way with nine sacks and Bernard's 8 1/2 sacks are the second most in the NFL by an interior lineman. Seattle has an effective blitz package (rookie linebacker LeRoy Hill has 7 1/2 sacks), but the D-line is good enough that blitzing isn't always necessary.

"Teams have to respect that our front four can rush on their own," Fisher said. "A lot of times they have to keep in a sixth or a seventh blocker in order to account for us, especially since we run so many stunts."

The Seahawks' defense is run by John Marshall, who took over the unit early this season after coordinator Ray Rhodes suffered a stroke. Rhodes has returned in a limited capacity, but Marshall continues to handle the play-calling.

Marshall has overseen a young defense that has improved steadily throughout the season.

"This is Ray's defense and scheme," Marshall said. "Nothing has changed. The only thing is that there's not a guy with black hair sitting in the chair, there's a guy with white hair. We've gotten a lot of satisfaction but aren't fully satisfied yet. To see the guys come on, get better and really improve has been great for all of us."


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