The Steelers brought out what they referred to as their "big nickel" package in 2012. It consisted of four down linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. It's not a brand new concept, but the use of it is becoming increasingly prevalent in today's game. Teams will want to match up with an offense's three receiver sets with an extra defensive backs, but more and more teams are finding the bulk of their running games coming out of such formations. Staying big up front while still being able to cover down the field is difficult without an outstanding slot defender.
Covering the slot requires players to be smart, strong and quick. They also need to be cognizant of the run, considering they are usually starting the snap close to the line of scrimmage, and will need to provide run support.
Enter Texas's Kenny Vaccaro, a multi-faceted safety who shows both outstanding coverage skills as well as aggression, instincts and desire in run support.
In the Longhorns' game against Kansas State earlier this season, their defense was generally gashed by the dominant option offense led by Heisman Trophy candidate Colin Klein. While the Wildcats may have won the war, it came at the price of several big hits from Vaccaro.
It's a good game to highlight, considering Vaccaro showed his highest strength as well as the area in which he must improve; his lateral speed and ability to attack downhill leads to several big hits, and he lines them up well. The hits he makes are the result of excellent timing and balance. He was caught out of position a few times in coverage, as his aggressive nature and desire to make big plays got the best of him.
Granted, Kansas State's offense averaged 401 yards and 38.8 points a game for many more reasons than just Texas's safety getting snookered on a few play action fakes. He hit Klein several times on both option keepers and open field runs, several of them highlight-worthy kinds of tackles.
He flashed some outstanding slot coverage ability in Texas's bowl game against Oregon State - another high-output offensive team. Texas pulled out all the stops with him as well. He lined up in a three-point stance and rushed the passer off the edge, covered the slot in press coverage and off-zone, played one and two deep and roamed around the box. That kind of versatility makes front offices notice a player because of how many different ways he can be used.
The Steelers would love to have this kind of safety. Not only is Vaccaro an outstanding talent, but his value in "situational football" is outstanding. In the event cornerback Keenan Lewis is not re-signed, Vaccaro can step in and immediately compete for nickel duties (behind Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen) as well as serve as the primary safety back-up, as veteran Ryan Mundy isn't expected back. That could potentially save the Steelers two contracts - Lewis and veteran Will Allen.
For a team that's as cap-strapped as the Steelers, it would be a nice benefit.
A big part of the reason Robert Golden made the roster last year was for the same versatility Vaccaro shows. Golden played multiple positions in his collegiate career at Arizona, and they are hoping to develop him as a safety who can cover the slot in nickel situations. Golden isn't the athlete Vaccaro is, but the fact is this game is shifting toward employing three and four receivers out of base offensive formations, and teams must respond defensively by treating their nickel defender as a 12th starter. Having a player cover a slot receiver while not losing the ability to defend the run is becoming more important.
So much so, it's unlikely Vaccaro falls to 17, but he would be extremely tempting should he be available at or around that spot.