I’ve been thinking more and more about where the NFL is heading, with the expansion of the passing game. I don’t have the numbers, but it seems the consensus is that somewhere between 50-60 percent of all offensive plays are run from a three-receiver set, and it’s been well-established that teams are throwing more than ever. Further, those teams are doing it with more and more success – yards and touchdowns are through the roof (three 5,000 yard QBs in a single year after only 2 in NFL history? Matt Stafford was TWENTY-THREE YEARS OLD PEOPLE, and barely played in his two prior seasons, but he still threw for 5k and 41 touchdowns. Go Lions, Restore the Roar by the way). NFL defenses are clearly having trouble keeping up. Certainly the Steelers have been doing a fairly good job, but we’ve still see them get smoked quite a bit on occasion. I’m intending this post as a purely hypothetical discussion – I don’t know if I necessarily believe we should try this scheme change, but for the sake of a lively debate, I will be taking the Devil’s Advocate position and arguing for a new scheme which I’ve examined in the past. Now’s an ideal time for it, as our defense is going through a bit of a transition as it is. As such, I propose the following: the Steelers should move their base set to a 2-4-5 alignment and draft players to fit this kind of scheme.
Why this is a good time for a progressive change in base alignment: We’re transitioning personnel already. We have holes at a few spots on the defense (nose tackle, inside linebacker), and need some youth to take over for the future/provide depth (outside linebacker, safety, and still corner to some degree, though I have faith in the Lewis/Allen/Brown trio).
Why this could work for us with the personnel we already have: The importance of a strong run defense is diminished, but this alignment won’t sacrifice too much in run defense at all, considering the players we have and the guys we like. In a 2-4-5 set, you obviously need to have great tacklers in your backfield and at linebacker – we have that, now and for the future. We’ve always prioritized it, and it shows with the drafting of guys like Curtis Brown, who despite being a small-ish corner is an outstanding tackler. This allows us, after this switch, to not lose too much in run defense.
Our team is also mostly suited to this set already, because it requires our linebackers to be great pass rushers – we only two down linemen, the linebackers have to be able to beat their guys one-on-one. Timmons is a good blitzer up the middle, and Harrison, Woodley, Worilds, and Carter are all designed to be pass rushers first. No problems here – and our starting backers are all pretty great against the run… though Carter and Worilds still need to show they can handle the run.
This set requires big, strong, and outstanding linemen. These guys have to do a great job of holding blockers to allow the linebackers freedom to flow and do their thing. This means a skill set similar to 3-4 ends as it is, and thankfully, we’ve invested highly in those. We’ve got a great one in Keisel, a solid player with Ziggy Hood, and a guy who looks like a future superstar in Heyward. The scheme also decreases the importance of a nose tackle, meaning we could probably get by next year with McClendon rolling in every now and then when we’d actually run three-men down, and he’d be solid backing up these guys at this new kind of end spot. These guys provide a little bit of pass rush and solid run defense. I think we’re set here.
What we need now to finish this off: As I’ve said above, this scheme would further emphasize linebackers who can stop the run and rush the passer. This fits us perfectly, because it makes a guy like Dont’a Hightower and even better fit, and masks his weaknesses in coverage. With our first pick, in order to facilitate this defense, we should absolutely draft Hightower. He’ll be perfect for this new scheme next to Timmons, and he won’t be asked to cover as much because we have another defensive back on the field, and Timmons can still cover tight ends or pass-catching backs. It’s a great fit, so draft Hightower in round 1.
This scheme is obviously designed to reduce the pass, and let’s assume we spend our second-rounder on a guard, like Amini Silatolu or Kelechi Osemele in round 2. With this new scheme, nose tackle drops a great deal as a need, and corner and safety moves up.
I think we’ve got four solid corners for this guy of defense. I think Curtis Brown in particular would be a great slot corner for this defense, given his ability to make the tackle – ideal for stopping gains after a quick slant to a Wes Welker type. We could really use some depth at safety now, and a potential future starter with the ability to cover tight ends and make some tackles. With that, I saw in round three we draft safety Brandon Taylor from LSU, who is very much a Troy Polamalu type safety, who could rotate in on our defense quickly. He’s a good athlete and can cover a lot of ground in pass coverage, and he’d be a great replacement at either safety spot for this defense in the future.
Throw in a lower-round type at nose tackle for depth, or maybe another outside linebacker prospect like Cordarro Law, and perhaps a homer-favorite of mine, safety Trenton Robinson from Michigan State (I’d love to see a Robinson/Taylor combo as our future safety set), and I think we’d be set on defense. It would look something like this:
Starting Defensive Line: Keisel and Hood with Heyward rotating in frequently
LOLB: Woodley, Worilds, Carter
Buck: Hightower, Foote
Mack: Timmons, Foote, Sylvester
ROLB: Harrison, Worilds, Carter
LCB: Taylor, Allen
RCB: Lewis, Allen
Third DB: Curtis Brown, or perhaps Troy if Brandon Taylor really pans out and can play in the back
FS: Clark, Mundy
SS: Troy/Taylor, Mundy
I know we run this set a couple times a game, but I think we could be stronger against the spread if we ran it more often.