Polamalu gives Steelers extra pass-rush threat

One trend that is visible through two weeks is that teams are using defensive backs to aggressively come after QBs from every possible angle.

Updated: September 23, 2005, 8:23 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

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Perception isn't always reality, and as Exhibit A in that contention, we offer the hasty conclusions drawn from last week's games, when the sickening thuds from quarterbacks hitting the turf resonated painfully throughout much of the league.

Certainly anyone who witnessed the pummeling of Byron Leftwich last Sunday at the RCA Dome couldn't help but have cringed at the body blows landed on the Jacksonville Jaguars' quarterback by the fierce rush of the Indianapolis Colts' front four. The carnage tallied six sacks and at least a half-dozen other lethal hits, including a last-minute impact by ravenous defensive end Dwight Freeney on which he absolutely planted a defenseless Leftwich, who was just one big, swollen welt by the end of the day.

Leftwich wasn't the only quarterback cast in the role of human piñata. In what seems to be a near-weekly occurrence, David Carr of Houston went down eight times, and is on pace to be sacked 104 times in 2005. Marc Bulger of St. Louis, sacked 11 times now in two outings, hit the ground four times last week. Anthony Wright of Baltimore was a six-sack victim. Arizona's Kurt Warner and Mark Brunell of Washington each absorbed five sacks. Defenses recorded four sacks apiece against Aaron Brooks of New Orleans and San Diego's Drew Brees.

In fact, in the 32 games contested so far in the 2005 season, there have been 13 times in which a quarterback was sacked four times or more.

The popular, knee-jerk conclusion: With so many quarterbacks going down, the number of sacks leaguewide must be going up, right? Even in an era in which the league has tried to legislate against torturing its most prized commodities, the quarterbacks are absorbing punishment of unparalleled levels, some observers feel.

Well, certainly, that's the perception after last week. But it's based more on anecdotal evidence than empiricism, because the raw numbers indicate that, to this juncture, the '05 season isn't much different sack-wise than most recent years. The early conclusion that the high-stakes game of "Pillage the Passer" has produced more than the normal quota of quarterback knockdowns is a flawed one.

Through two weeks, there have been as many quarterbacks TKO'd by their own poor on-field performances as by the oppositions' pass rushers. The early scorecard: One each.

In truth, sacks aren't up, and haven't been for years. To date, the league is averaging 4.65 sacks per game. And, believe it or not, that is consistent with the levels for the past five campaigns. Since 2000, when sacks per game dipped under the 5.0 mark for the first time since 1996, the NFL has averaged 4.66 sacks per outing. The variance, from a high of 4.96 in 2000 to a low of 4.36 in 2003, hasn't been very dramatic. The perceptions aside, this season hasn't been much different, with 149 sacks in the first two weekends.

Here, though, is what has changed, and why so many fear for the safety of quarterbacks, who they seem to feel are sitting ducks: Quarterbacks are arguably being hit harder than at any time in the past because the pass rushers are coming from more angles than ever before. Yeah, we know the first part of the equation is arbitrary, and can't be quantified. The second part of the premise, though, has some statistical roots. And some anecdotal foundation as well.

"It just seems now," said the embattled Carr, who was sacked 13 times in the first two games, and who could challenge his own dubious record of having suffered 76 sacks in 2002, "that [the pass rushers] are coming from everywhere. I mean, every time I looked up [last week] it seemed like No. 43 was in my face."

Troy Polamalu
Safety
Pittsburgh Steelers
Profile
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
9 9 0 0 3 1
The identity of No. 43 is Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu, who accounted for three of the eight sacks against Carr last week. That performance tied an esoteric NFL record for most sacks by a defensive back in a single game. But while Polamalu's sack spree was rare -- he entered the game with three career sacks in 33 previous games -- it was nonetheless indicative of the mind-set of defensive coordinators who are coming at quarterbacks in deviously creative ways.

Football is nothing if not cyclical. It follows that for every action, there must be a reaction. With all the rules changes and interpretations that have opened up the passing game, such as the reemphasis on illegal contact in the secondary implemented last season, defensive coordinators had to come up with countermeasures. And so, in a touch of irony, many of them have decided to try to knock down the opposition passer with the same defenders who have traditionally been paid to knock down passes.

Had the Pittsburgh-Houston match at Reliant Stadium been transformed into the classic board game Clue last week, an amateur sleuth would have won the game by submitting this simple, three-pronged solution: In the Texans backfield. With a blunt instrument. By the strong safety. Unfortunately, for Carr and many quarterbacks in the league, they don't need many clues to know that defensive coordinators are regularly sending pass rushers out of the secondary now.

"A few years ago, in the season opener, I remember the Eagles sending both corners on a blitz on the first play of the game," Warner recently recalled. "I mean, a double 'corner fire' blitz. I had never seen anything like it before. I froze. Now you see stuff like that all the time, it seems, with [pass rushers] coming from all over the place. There are a lot of safeties, in particular, getting hits on the quarterback."

The first two weeks of the 2005 season, in fact, have brought an exponential increase in the number of sacks by defenders attacking the pocket from the secondary.

In 2000, defensive backs accounted for 7.3 percent of the 1,232 sacks in the league. That quota rose to 7.9 percent in 2001, fell slightly to 7.7 percent in 2002, then took a notable upward spiral, to 9.1 percent in 2003 and 10.4 percent in 2004. And through the first 32 games of this season? Well, safeties and cornerbacks have accounted for 24½ of the 149 sacks recorded in the league, or a whopping 16.4 percent of the quarterback takedowns.

Twenty-one secondary defenders, most of them safeties, have at least one sack apiece. Polamalu, and fellow strong safeties Brian Dawkins of Philadelphia and Roy Williams of Dallas all have more than one sack. There is a chance that Polamalu could challenge the unofficial sack record by a defensive back, set by then-Chicago safety Dave Duerson, who had seven sacks in 1986.

A third-year veteran and the Steelers' first-round pick in the 2003 draft, the incredibly versatile Polamalu is the latest windup-toy defender for Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who loves to bring the pass-rush heat from exotic angles. With his out-of-control mane dangling below his helmet, and his Samoan lineage, Polamalu qualifies as exotic. And if he keeps making regular forays into the opposition backfield, he might make some quarterbacks extinct.

"He's one of those rare guys who can play real deep, play intermediate, and play at the line of scrimmage," said LeBeau, who relishes such flexibility in his safeties. "He's been making me look pretty good."

Against the Texans last week, Polamalu lined up as a strong safety, a nickel corner, a nickel linebacker, even as a defensive lineman on a few snaps. The former Southern California star, a rare blend of size and speed who was named to his first Pro Bowl last season, has emerged as a premier safety. He also has become the wild card for LeBeau, who has a long history of designing creative schemes that feature safety play.

Polamalu, 24, isn't just the latest in a long line of LeBeau star safeties. He is following in a tradition of Pittsburgh secondary defenders who loved to hit the quarterback. Since the sack became an official statistic in 1982, there have been just three dozen cornerbacks or safeties who recorded four or more sacks in a season. Five of the 36 -- Deshea Townsend, Lee Flowers, Chris Oldham, Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson -- were Steelers defenders. Of the Steelers' league-best 11 sacks this season, five have been by secondary players.

But the attack-mode mind-set from the secondary is hardly limited to the Steelers. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson consistently brings his cornerbacks from the edge or out of the slot to pressure the pocket. And in Dawkins, who has 16 career sacks, he has one of the league's most accomplished blitzers out of the secondary. Some of the other premier pass-rushing secondary players include safeties Lawyer Milloy (Buffalo), Adam Archuleta (St. Louis), Rodney Harrison (New England) and Sammy Knight (Kansas City), and cornerbacks Ronde Barber (Tampa Bay), Pittsburgh's Townsend, the Eagles' duo of Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown and, suddenly, Shawn Springs (Washington).

In the aggressive scheme of coordinator Gregg Williams, Springs, who had exactly 1½ sacks the first seven seasons of his career, registered six sacks in 2004, the league high for a secondary player and the most since 2000, when Harrison, then playing for the San Diego Chargers, scored six quarterback takedowns.

Things have progressed to the point now that cornerbacks and safeties, who once relied just on quickness and the element of surprise, now spend time practicing a few pass-rush techniques, albeit rudimentary ones.

"It used to be just about timing, you know, delaying until you see things open in front of you and then just blasting through the gap," said Archuleta, who had five sacks in 2003 and whose sack of Warner last Sunday cemented a Rams victory. "And there is still that element to it. But if you're going to try to be running past backs trying to pass-block you, and you really want to hit the quarterback, you've got to know a little bit about technique. And, let's face it, everyone wants to hit the quarterback."

And hit him, it seems in 2005, from every angle imaginable.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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