The Ball Stops Here

Want to know more about offensive innovation in football?

Walk inside the Steelers' training facility and you will find five Lombardi Trophies shimmering in a glass case outside the executive offices. But if you continue deeper into the building, you'll come across a lesser-known relic that's just as significant to this year's defense. It's a floor-to-ceiling black-and-white photo of the first points ever scored by Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl—a safety by the Steel Curtain in a 16-6 win over Minnesota on Jan. 12, 1975. At the bottom of the picture, Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert growls into the face mask of a prostrate and clearly frightened Fran Tarkenton, the Vikes' elusive quarterback who was supposed to be unstoppable.

The picture is a reminder that when it comes to offense in the NFL, nothing can ever be considered invulnerable or innovative until it's survived the Pittsburgh D. So before declaring Piedmont's A-11 or any other offense of two QBs and a spread formation the next big thing, we gave the Steelers a crack at stopping the future in its tracks. As you'd expect, linebacker and MVP candidate James Harrison, Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu and the rest of the NFL's top-ranked unit attacked the assignment with Blitzburgh gusto.

DICK LEBEAU (coordinator):
There has been a change in the entire philosophy of football—you can hardly watch a high school game today without empty backfields, spread-out receivers and teams throwing 70% of the time. It's been quite a trip to see the skill and speed of the game evolve like this.

CASEY HAMPTON (nose tackle):
My family was here for the Dallas game. It was 3-0 in the first half, and we're fired up on the field thinking we're doing a great job on defense. And my family is up in their box complaining, saying the game is boring. We can't win. Everybody loves this crazy offensive stuff.

A high school uses two quarterbacks? Imagine for a second having Tom Brady and Peyton Manning on the same team, running this offense.

I'd pray for divine intervention.

You can always hit offenses out of their schemes. So we'd play man coverage on the outside and put two beasts on either side of the line and blitz 'em from the edge on every down—you hit 'em, get the quarterback hurt. They start running out of quarterbacks, they won't play it anymore.

Pressure busts pipes.

Yeah, this A-11 sounds dangerous to me. Dangerous for offenses. Guys spread out like that? All you have to do is shoot that big gap? I would love to see that in the NFL.

AARON SMITH (defensive end):
But the more you spread out, the more you change the angles of the game. They spread you out and let the athletes play and try to take the meat and the hitters out of the game. If it continues to go this way, you're gonna see the bigger guys out of the game for good.

JAMES FARRIOR (linebacker):
If you can't attack it, it neutralizes everything—your pass rush, everything. So you'll have to match everyone up man on man, and if your guy stays in, even out by the sideline, then you get to go attack the QB.

Man on man? That's basketball on grass. You'd have to play this soft read-and-react, then when they do run the ball, you'd get killed because they'd catch you on your heels.

BRYANT MCFADDEN (cornerback):
Man on man? Farrior gets hit in the head too much. You'd have to play some kind of zone, a Cover 4 or even two deep safeties. Have everyone play an underneath zone, a Cover 2 mentality, keep everything inside and underneath. If you're too aggressive and blitz everybody, the quarterback's too deep, you won't be able to get there in time, so someone's gonna leak through eventually and be all alone downfield.

More than zone or man, personnel would be the hardest part. I mean, who do you send in? All linebackers? Extra corners? Smaller defensive linemen? This really creates mismatches, because let's say you put a 300-pound defensive lineman in there and the guy he's over goes out for a deep pass. Is that 300-pound guy gonna drop 25 yards into coverage? So you'd have no idea who to send in or where to even line them up. No clue.

It's evolution. One of those kids in that offense is gonna grow up and be an NFL coach one day, and he'll have this system in the back of his head, waiting.

I always wonder if older players, from 50 years ago, could have imagined a five-receiver set with an empty backfield. So you never know where this could go.

DESHEA TOWNSEND (cornerback):
Yeah, I would never say never with this. It would be something great to see a team mass-report as eligible receivers for a play in the Super Bowl. And once someone does it there, you know the NFL—it will be everywhere.