Labriola On

Labriola on backups, Stunt 4-3, running QBs

Ready or not, here it comes:

• The salary cap era in the NFL was supposed to guard against the league being divided up into the haves and the have-nots, but when it comes to backup quarterbacks, it has had the opposite effect.

• "Why didn't the Steelers have a better plan in place in the event of a season-ending injury to Ben Roethlisberger than to be forced to turn to a couple of unproven, inexperienced quarterbacks?"

• That question and variations of it have been common complaints from Steelers fans who grew more and more frustrated with the 2019 team as it navigated a regular season that had it finish in the top 10 in the NFL in nine different defensive categories and finish 27th or worse in the NFL in 10 different offensive categories.

• As a very, very wise man once told me: Whenever the question is, why? The answer is, money. And in the case of the NFL, the money is the salary cap.

• Here is an unofficial list of nine of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL in 2019 (in no particular order): Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins, Russell Wilson, Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Matthew Stafford, Derek Carr, Roethlisberger, and I'm also going to add Tom Brady to that list because he is paid a big buck as well.

• Here are the backups to those quarterbacks, and they're listed in tandem with the individuals they are backing up: Drew Brees and Teddy Bridgewater, Kirk Cousins and Sean Mannion, Russell Wilson and Geno Smith, Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Mullens, Aaron Rodgers and Tim Boyle, Carson Wentz and Josh McCown, Matthew Stafford and Jeff Driskel, Derek Carr and DeShone Kizer, Ben Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph, Tom Brady and Jarrett Stidham.

• The only one of those backups with any real pedigree is Bridgewater, and New Orleans had him on a one-year guaranteed contract for $7.25 million in 2019, which only was possible because Bridgewater was looking for an opportunity to show the rest of the league that he had recovered sufficiently from the gruesome knee injury he sustained on Aug. 30, 2016 to be considered for a starting job again.

• But outside of Bridgewater, which of those backups would engender a lot of confidence if he had to take over at halftime of the season's second game and then serve as the starter the rest of the year? Some of them are ancient, others already have failed, and the rest are young and inexperienced. And the reason teams have to go with players in those categories in that role is because of the salary cap.

• If a team is fortunate enough to employ a legitimate franchise quarterback, and if that legitimate franchise quarterback has been in the league long enough to have gotten to a second, or even a third, contract, he's making the kind of money that puts a big dent in his team's annual salary cap. And if that team decides to invest significant money to secure a proven backup, then where does the money come from to surround the franchise quarterback with the kind of receivers, runners, and blockers he needs to display his talents, to say nothing of paying the kind of defensive players who can complement the offense and create a team capable of contending for a championship?

• Teams with starting quarterbacks still on their rookie deals are in a better position to commit resources to a backup quarterback, but for teams in the Steelers' situation, which means teams with established, high-salaried franchise quarterbacks, you could do a lot worse than Mason Rudolph, who had a representative first season as a starter, for my money. And for the amount of money the Steelers had to commit to him under their salary cap.

• On Tuesday, Jan. 7, George Perles died at the age of 85 from complications of Parkinson's disease. And even if the recent generations of Steelers fans have no idea of who he was, what contributions he made, and why he deserves to be mentioned here, suffice it to say that the 1970s were what they were for the Steelers because of the contributions of men like Perles.

• Hired in 1972 by Chuck Noll to coach the defensive line, Perles was part of a staff of assistants that also included Bud Carson, Dan Radakovich, Dick Hoak, Lionel Taylor, and Woody Widenhofer. They didn't always agree. They didn't always get their way. But together, with Noll at the top of the pyramid, they assembled and then deployed the pieces that would become the NFL's dominant team of the decade, with four Super Bowl victories over a six-season span.

• For example, Perles was a believer that defensive linemen needed to be big, squat, two-gap specialists who were difficult for offensive linemen to move, and thus good at stopping the run. Therefore, Perles was not an immediate fan of L.C. Greenwood, who was long, lean, athletic, and had the moves and speed of a natural pass-rusher. Discovered at Arkansas AM&N and brought to the Steelers in 1969 by Bill Nunn for the bargain price of a 10th-round draft pick, Greenwood had become a full-time starter the year before Perles was hired.

• Perles wanted to replace Greenwood; Nunn implored Noll to give the young defensive end some more time to grow and develop into the kind of pass-rusher the Rams' Fearsome Foursome had in Deacon Jones and the Vikings' Purple People Eaters had in Carl Eller. Noll, like Nunn, believed in having athletes on the field, and so Perles was overruled. But Perles was successful in getting Ernie Holmes into the starting lineup next to Joe Greene at defensive tackle, and with Dwight While already established at the other defensive end spot, the Steel Curtain was in place.

• Perles generally is credited with coming up with the Stunt 4-3, an alignment of the front four that befuddled opposing offenses in the 1974 playoffs and helped propel the Steelers to the first of those four championships that decade. The best way to describe the Stunt 4-3 is as an "offset alignment," because instead of lining up over the guard, Greene lined up at an angle pointed toward the gap between the center and the guard.

• "It started out as a pass blocking technique, but we found out it really screws up the offensive blocking," said Noll at the time. "It's an aggressive defensive play because our front four isn't sitting and reading the offense. Instead, they're the ones making things happen."

• It's often said in football circles that "it's not the Xs and the Os, it's the Jimmys and the Joes," which refers to personnel being more important than scheme, and that certainly was the case with the Stunt 4-3. Greene made it successful, because otherwise it was just a strange looking alignment.

• Said Andy Russell, "Joe jumped in the gap between the guard and center, tilted his body, and just blew through that gap, and it was devastating. It was a beautiful thing to see."

• The dilemma for the offense was this: if the linemen double-teamed Greene, it left Holmes free to wreak havoc, and if the linemen chose to block Holmes in the traditional way, there was just one player left to try to deal with Greene's penetration into the backfield. As Perles explained it, "If the offense leaves a 1-yard gap (between players) and Joe lines up like that, they're dead. If they give us a yard, we're gone."

• Gone, as in dead, was a good way to describe the running attacks of Buffalo, Oakland, and Minnesota, the three opponents the Steelers defense squashed on the road to winning Super Bowl IX. O.J. Simpson managed 48 yards on 15 carries; the Raiders attempted 21 rushes and gained 29 yards; and the Vikings totaled 17 yards on 21 running plays.

• In the final matchup of Wild Card Weekend, Carson Wentz was knocked out of the game when he was concussed as the result of a hit from Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Without Wentz, the Eagles were forced to turn the offense over to fortysomething Luke McCown, and when the unit was unable to muster enough to threaten Seattle's defense, the Seahawks posted a victory in Philadelphia and advanced into this weekend's Divisional Round.

• As always happens whenever a starting quarterback is forced from a game because of an injury, there was an outcry, and this time it was that Clowney's hit was dirty, that he should've been penalized, that he deserved to be suspended this weekend. But Eagles coach Doug Pederson disagreed.

• "Listen, all mobile quarterbacks, they become runners at some point. That's just kind of the give-and-take with these guys," Pederson said. "We've encouraged Carson to use his legs when he can, and at that particular time, it was a broken play and he was making a play. It was unfortunate, the hit, but I do think that once they become runners, it becomes different. That's just the way the league is."

• And when quarterbacks become runners, they are not afforded the same kind of protection that passers get in the pocket. To emphasize the point, if Clowney had delivered the exact same hit to Eagles starting running back Miles Sanders, no one would have given it a second look. But what people should understand is that based on the rules there comes a time and a situation when Wentz becomes Sanders, when quarterbacks become running backs, and in those instances the quarterback exposes himself to the same treatment from the defense.

• "He was a runner and he did not give himself up," NFL official Shawn Smith said in a pool report on the Eagles-Seahawks game about the Wentz-Clowney encounter. "We saw incidental helmet contact, and in our judgement, we didn't rule that to be a foul. From what we saw on the field it was incidental."

• It's going to be interesting to see how Lamar Jackson is treated in these playoffs moving forward when he becomes a runner, because if opposing defenses don't get physical with him in those situations, they will lose to the Ravens. And they will have gotten what they deserve. It's not about intent to injure. It's about playing physical defense.

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