The scariest thing about the Steelers defense, at least to Rex Ryan, is the similarity it bears to his own. The 3-4 scheme, strong secondary and, in the Jets coach‘s words, a whole lot of guys a parent wouldn’t want their child to face.
“Our teams are built very similar,” Ryan said in his press conference Thursday morning. “The systems aren’t identical, but we still do a lot of the same things, just maybe in a little different fashion. They do a little more ‘fire zone’ and we’re more man. But the systems are similar in that both will challenge you mentally and physically.”
(“Fire” is a complex zone defense in which there are usually two blitzers - in the Steelers’ case, it’s often safety Troy Polamalu and/or outside linebackers Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison - with the rest of the linebackers and defensive backs dropping into zone coverage.)
The Steelers were No. 1 in overall and pass defense last year, and allowed just 14.2 points per game. Even in the 31-19 loss to Peyton Manning’s Broncos on Sunday, Pittsburgh’s defense was solid.
“That’s a tough team,” Ryan said of the Steelers. “We’ve got our work cut out for us to say the least.”
Beyond the talent and skill on that defense, Ryan said, some of its veterans bring an element of intimidation.
“I don’t know if you'd want your kids going against [defensive tackle] Casey Hampton and James Harrison or Woodley and Troy Polamalu,” he said. “My kid’s a receiver and I don’t want him going up against [cornerback] Ike Taylor. You certainly don’t want your kid against Darrelle Revis. The teams are built that way. It’s still tough, old-fashioned football. And I think that still wins.”
Speaking of Harrison, the linebacker had arthroscopic knee surgery last month and missed Week 1, but according to reports he could play this Sunday. Harrison, even at 34, still is one of the premiere pass-rushers in the league, having recorded at least 8 ½ sacks each season since 2007. He had nine sacks in 11 games last year.
“You put him in the ‘badass’ category,” Ryan said of Harrison, nicknamed Deebo (if you’ve never watched the movie “Friday” then Google it). “The first thing that jumps out is how physical he is. He’s a complete player. Strong at the point of attack, relentless in pursuit, and a tremendous pass-rusher. Obviously that would be a factor.”
Behind that Steelers defense is its mastermind, Dick LeBeau, and Ryan expressed his respect for the longtime coach. The 75-year-old has been the Steelers' defensive coordinator since 2004, so he and Ryan, a former Ravens assistant, have squared off several times. But their relationship goes back even farther.
“I was a coach at Morehead State [as a defensive coordinator from 1990-93] ... and at the time, [LeBeau] was with the Cincinnati Bengals," Ryan said. "We had a safety he was looking at and I was able to spend a little time with him. He was a gracious guy, even back then."
The two coaches also matched wits in the 2010-11 AFC Championship Game, which the Steelers won, 24-19.
“You don’t like the guy when you’re playing against him, but as soon as that game is over you respect him,” Ryan said. “From my end, there’s a great deal of admiration for him. The best thing [Steelers head coach] Mike Tomlin did was he kept Dick LeBeau.”