By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) When you think about Oregon Duck football, you don’t think about defense.
But there’s a reason Nick Aliotti has been the defensive coordinator at Oregon since 1999. His creative schemes have changed over the years, but most recently, he’s plugged dynamic athletes into a 3-4 hybrid system that disguises pressure to keep opposing offenses guessing and create turnovers.
So what does Nick Aliotti have to do with the Chicago Bears?
Well, with all the talk this week — both inside and outside of Halas Hall — about how the rookie right side of the Bears’ offensive line will handle Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 zone blitzing scheme in Pittsburgh Sunday, it’s important to remember that Kyle Long saw it every day in practice a year ago at Oregon.
Granted, as he concedes, he was playing a different position.
“I have a lot of experience against the 3-4s, but that was as a tackle,” Long said Thursday. “Most of my time there was as a tackle. So moving inside it’s still the same front, but it’s just a different position. I’m looking forward to it.”
Long’s experience practicing against a 3-4 will be important Sunday as he stands next to a fellow rookie who doesn’t have as much experience against the scheme. Right tackle Jordan Mills didn’t see many 3-4 fronts playing at Louisiana Tech, so he was forced to study other teams on television as he prepared for the kind of fronts he’d see in the NFL.
“I used to watch Alabama and that 3-4 defense,” Mills said. “Nick Saban is a great defensive coach and I used to watch them when I had time to study film and get better.”
So what exactly is so different about the scheme and specifically the Steelers’ version?
“These guys, as opposed to trying to penetrate gaps, they’re trying to read to see what we’re doing before they make their move,” Long said. “They’re a button-press team, which means they are going to get their hands on us and try to extend their arms before they find out run, pass, which hole. So other teams are shooting the gaps and trying to disrupt what we do as opposed to what they’re doing which is to sit back on their heels, figure it out and then make a play on the ball.”
This is especially effective against the run on first and second down when they can occupy blockers in their two-gap scheme and allow their linebackers to flow to the football.
“They’re more gap (control),” head coach Marc Trestman said. “When we say gap control they’re more oriented not to rush the passer but to stay in the gap and wait for runs to come at them. It’s much more difficult to block them in terms of teams that can press the hole. We say press the hole and ride the wave, work to the backside backer. Their fits are different and they’re not playing their front to rush the passer and defend the run on the way to the quarterback, they’re rushing the passer to stop the run and they’re doing it with internal blitzes and people coming from different levels, which makes it harder to one-on-one block.”
Thus, the blocking techniques change dramatically from a 4-3 to a 3-4, which is the biggest adjustment the offensive line is making this week in preparation for the Steelers.
“It will be a good test for Jordan and I,” Long said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a test of studying, but it’s just a test of technique. You’ve got use different techniques when playing a different kind of team.”
Mills is on the same page. He said multiple techniques are necessary throughout the game because of the variety of players they’ll face throughout the game. Whereas Mills mostly faced Vikings defensive end Brian Robison last week — who essentially rushed the same way every time — this week he’ll face a much different challenge.
“You’ll get bigger, stronger guys. You’re not going to get the usual base 4-3 defensive ends that are 6-5, run a 4.6,” Mills said. “Some of these defensive ends in a 3-4 are 6-2, 6-3, maybe 290, 300 pounds, and they can still run sub-4.8s and they’re as strong as you are so you have to be ready.”
And then there are the edge rushers who don’t just include the linebackers, but also the safeties.
“Definitely. And (Troy) Polamalu, the way he times up your snaps, he’ll act like he’s going in motion and stop on a dime and come shoot right through the A-gap, so you’ve got to be prepared for that,” the right tackled added.
Thus, the communication Saturday will be key. Both quarterback Jay Cutler and center Roberto Garza will be tested with their calls at the line of scrimmage and that message will have to travel from Garza to the guards to the tackles to the tight ends to the receivers. Naturally, the coaching staff has pumped in crowd noise inside the Walter Payton Center the last two days.
“The calls (Jay Cutler and Roberto Garza) are going to be making is going to be important,” Mills said. “Whatever the call, it changes our technique.”
This will be especially important on third downs, where LeBeau loves to disguise his coverage and create confusion.
“On third down, Dick LeBeau has been known for years to have a lot of tough nickel blitzes, show you one way, blitz the other way, roll a guy from the line of scrimmage down to a deep half to cover,” offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “So that’s what makes it difficult. It’s just hard to see where they’re coming from.”
So at the very least, the offensive line has to give Cutler time to attempt see where the Steelers are coming from.
“(Polamalu) doesn’t really like to play by all the rules sometimes, like rolling coverages and going where he’s supposed to go,” the quarterback said. “So you could have a three-deep look, and he’s supposed to be three-deep-middle, and he could be eight yards deep jumping routes. You’ve just got to be aware of him.”
To help, the Bears will use silent snap counts, but that will also be a change for an offensive line that has zero pre-snap penalties through two games.
“It’s a get-off factor and part of football is we know the snap count and they don’t, so the offense you hope can get off faster than the defense,” Kromer said. “So you have to do a good job of understanding the mechanics and understanding the timing with your center and that’s what we’ve been working on.”
Communication. Timing. Mechanics. And once again, technique.
“It’s all about technique,” Mills said. “Technique is going to win this game.”
Clearly, the message has been received by the players. Now it’s executing it on Sunday night.