It has been suggested, rumored and questioned on this site, that the Steelers may be adding a new wrinkle to their defense in the near future. I can't recall who first came up with the idea, but I do remember having some back and forth on the subject with DropTheHammer. Scott's recent article, "Study of players the Steelers have met," lends itself to further the discussion of the 3-3-5 defense coming to Pittsburgh.
I am not a coach. I am not an expert on football; however, I am beyond obsessed with learning more about the game of football, and there is no word to describe my love of learning more about how the Steelers approach to football. I have read nearly everything I could find on the internet about the 3-3-5 defense. There are as many different variations to it as their are teams that utilize it. My goal here is to explain the "positional requirements" of the 3-3-5. I will identify current Steelers players that may or may not fit that scheme. I will look at some of the players mentioned in Scott's article in relation to their projected fit in the 3-3-5. Then we can hopefully have a more educated guess at where the coaches may be headed with their defensive thinking.
The 3-3-5: Defensive Lineman
As the name suggests, this defense utilizes 3 defensive lineman. The common theme I came across is that the NT must be able to command a double team. This is not surprising to read, since this is true of any "30" front. Some teams that run the 3-3-5 stunt/slant their NT, having them "1 gap," some had them "2 gap" and read. Some tend to align them as a 0 tech, some as a 1 tech. But whether it was by penetrating a gap, or by holding ground vs a double team, the NT has to be stout. The NT is being used with decreasing frequency in the NFL. Mike Tomlin said it himself during an interview at the Florida team meetings. If the Steelers intend to run a 3-3-5, they will need to reverse this trend a bit. As of now, the Steelers have Daniel McCullers. He hasn't shown much in is 2 years. Scott has 3 players listed that are considered NT capable: Andrew Billings, A'Shawn Robinson, and Vernon Butler. It's clear the Steelers need, and will likely draft, a NT capable player. That, in and of itself, does not point toward the use of a 3-3-5, as they need a NT in the 3-4 regardless.
The other DL (DE's) in a 3-3-5 have to be versatile enough to contain when playing the 5 tech, slide over to 3 tech and penetrate, and provide a pass rush. There's no question that Heyward and Tuitt have shown themselves to be more than capable of doing everything and then some, of what is required of a DL in a 3-3-5.
The 3-3-5: Linebackers
This is where it gets a bit cloudier, as far as the Steelers potential ability to implement this scheme. At its heart, the 3-3-5 is a defense of versatility and disguise. It's strength is being able to confuse the offense's blocking schemes because the front looks similar, so it doesn't know where the attack is coming from. Whereas in a 2-4-5, the OLB's are pass rush specialists, the LB's in a 3-3-5 are "jacks of all trades that can be transformed into superior pass-rushers by virtue of the system disguising where they are blitzing from (From "Modern defense and the 2-4-5 vs the 3-3-5" by Ian Boyd, 2015).
The LB's often line up in a stack (the 3-3-5 is often referred to as the "30 Stack" or "3-3-5 Stack"), which is off the ball, directly behind a DL. They often move before the snap, up to the LOS, but because it is later movement, and because each LB can potentially do everything, the blocking schemes get confused/disrupted.
So, to exaggerate for illustrative purposes, if you had 3 Luke Kuechly clones at LB, you would be in the ideal position, personnel-wise to run a 3-3-5. While Kuechly may not be the ideal pass rusher, he can do everything. With 3 of him at the LB position, you could run whatever stunt, blitz, coverage you wanted, with as many variations as your heart desired, or your mind could come up with. The offense would have no idea which was coming because all 3 of your "Luke's" could potentially do anything.
Back to the Steelers LB's. Another aspect of the 3-3-5 is it was implemented initially as way to combat the spread offenses (Joe Lee Dunn is widely credited with inventing the scheme , first at Memphis in 1991, and later, more famously at Miss. State in the mid 1990's. Charlie Strong devised his own brand of the 3-3-5 at South Carolina in the early 2000's). It was a way to get speedier athletes on the field on defense. Shazier is a perfect example of that 3-3-5 LB. Lawrence Timmons, while not being as fast as he was 10 years ago, has still proven versatile enough (only as far back as 2012, Timmons tied for the team lead in sacks, and last season, tied for the team lead among LB's). The "problem" lies in Jarvis Jones and/or Bud Dupree.
First, Jarvis. He is not athletic enough to maximize and execute the "spirit of the 3-3-5," which again, is to disguise, but also to get fast athletes flying around the field. He has shown versatility (dropped in coverage much more than any other Steeler OLB in 2015). So you could make it work with JJ. I just wouldn't expect the results you're looking for.
Bud Dupree has the athleticism. It's just, do you really expect him to drop in coverage all that often? I think Dupree will improve as a pass rusher, and that potential growth would mean he's better suited in a 2-4-5, coming off the edge.
What I see as a potential use of Bud Dupree in a 3-3-5 would be as a DE in more obvious pass situations. In this scenario, either Heyward or Tuitt would be moved to a 1 tech. The Steelers did do this in 2015 to prevent the center/guard from getting to the second level on a running play while the Steelers were in their nickel
The Steelers have not met with ANY prospects that could be considered ILB's. The lone exception might be Jatavis Brown, who really is more in the mold of a LB/S hybrid (get to those later). So it would seem if the Steelers are going to run a 3-3-5, they are going to do it with the LB's on hand, or use a LB/S hybrid at the risk of being overly small at LB.
From a LB standpoint, the Steelers do not look poised to run a 3-3-5, at least not in a "classic" way.
The 3-3-5: CB's
The CB's act like typical CB's in any defense. Many 3-3-5 defenses, however, designate a "boundary" corner, and a "field" corner. The boundary corner is stronger in run support, while the field corner is better at coverage. This distinction has little relevance in the NFL. It does have relevance when you consider the teams that run the 3-3-5, one team specifically. Ohio State ran it while Bradley Roby was there. Roby was the boundary corner. When Roby went to the NFL, Doran Grant took over as boundary corner because of his tackling ability. Roby went on to play safety at Denver, but the Broncos use him as their primary nickelback. I will get to Doran Grant in a bit, but I feel it instructional to note the connection.
As a side, I tried to watch video of both Doran Grant and Eli Apple. I was looking to see if either of them "flipped sides" in order to remain either a boundary or field corner, depending on which hash the ball was spotted. I did not see that, but that's not important here.
The Steelers CB's in 2015 for use in a 3-3-5 would be Ross Cockrell and Senquez Golson. I'll get to Will Gay shortly. You can debate all you want if either Cockrell or Golson are starter capable, but for the purposes here, that's who we would have (unless Cortez Allen has a giant A-HA! moment).
The Steelers have met with 11 CB prospects. I will not list them. Scott ranked them in order of potential round taken. Suffice to say the Steelers are intent on adding at least 1 CB to the mix, regardless of what front/scheme they utilize.
The 3-3-5: Safeties
The 3-3-5 utilizes 3 safeties, 1 free safety, and 2 hybrids. The free safety is exactly what you would think of from that term. The Steelers have Mike Mitchell here. Some may argue that Mitchell is better suited for Strong Safety. They may be right. But he is the Steelers FS and although not an All-Pro, he played immensely better in his second year in Pittsburgh. Mitchell should be viewed as a strength. The Steelers have met with one FS, or "coverage" safety prospect. This is Vonn Bell. Interesting again, the connection to Ohio State here, a team which utilized the 3-3-5. If Bell were selected by the Steelers, it would seem to suggest a move to SS by Mitchell.
The other two safeties in a 3-3-5, are often called Strong Safety(s). They have been referred to as the key to the "30 Stack." Both, as I stated, are hybrids. In most 3-3-5 schemes, they are referred to as the SPUR and the Bandit. They do most of the adjusting, based on formation. The spur is the stronger of the 2, a LB/S hybrid. He will more often line up to the strong side of the formation. You would typically think of him as a "box safety," strong in run support, but the spur still must be able to cover TE's.
Right now Robert Golden would be the spur for the Steelers (Again, unless Shamarko has a huge A-HA! moment. Incidentally, the spur position would seem to be the exact position Shamarko would have been drafted for.) The Steelers have met with 7 LB/S hybrids. Again, Scott has listed them. Some lean toward the LB side, some the S side. I wouldn't pretend to know enough about all the responsibilities of the spur position to get an idea of which ones would fit it best. I could see a case being made for either. Suffice to say, however, the Steelers could easily find a prospect that would allow them to fill the spur position.
The bandit position is more of a hybrid S/nickelback that quarterbacks the defensive backfield. The Steelers bandit position would be filled by Will Gay. He is strong in run support, has been the slot corner of choice, and has the most familiarity/knowledge of the defense of all the current DB's. (Although the Steelers were not utilizing the 3-3-5 in scheme last year, they may have at least had some of it conceptually. This would speak a lot toward their reluctance to use Boykin in the "slot," preferring Gay there.)
As far as prospects go, I don't know enough about the 11 CB's to know if they would fit the bill here. As much as there is mixed review on Eli Apple, I wouldn't discount the fact that he played at Ohio State. The Pittsburgh-Ohio State connection has been stated numerous times. I think in this light, it could stand out more.
Which brings Doran Grant back into the picture. Grant filled the same role as a Buckeye as his predecessor, Bradley Roby. The Broncos use Roby as a nickelback/safety. It does not take much of a leap to think the Steelers could do the same thing with Grant. The Steelers' DB coach, Carnell Lake, mentioned the possibility of Grant playing safety the day he was drafted. Could the role of bandit be more of what the Steelers have in mind?
The Tom Bradley Connection
Scott mentioned this in his article. He pointed out that Bradley was the Mountaineers defensive coordinator in 2014. I've seen him listed as an Associate Head Coach and the D-line coach (Bradley has a long time connection to the Steelers, serving as "part-time DB coach" while he was under Paterno at Penn State). At any rate, just to add this to the mix: in 2014 the Mountaineers "re-implemented" the 3-3-5. And while the Steelers have yet to bring in Karl Joseph or K.J. Dillon for an official visit (as Scott noted), they may not need to. They were at their Pro Day, and I'm sure they would utilize the Bradley connection to gain any insight on the players they didn't garner for themselves.
I attempted to introduce the key elements of the 3-3-5. I wanted to see if the Steelers have the personnel currently to implement the scheme. Also to see if the draft prospects they were interested in would indicate their inclination to do so.
One must acknowledge that no team that utilizes the 3-3-5 does so exclusively, at least at the collegiate level. I could find no record of an NFL team using it (at least in name).
I think it's safe to say that Butler and Tomlin are intent on introducing hybrids into their scheme. Would part of that scheme utilize a 3-3-5? The fit seems best in the secondary, could easily get there in the DL, with some tweaking needed at LB. If the Steelers do use it, I think it would be in a limited capacity, at least initially. Personally, I would love to see it.
I enjoyed researching this immensely. The wheels were turning in my head at a furious pace as I imagined the players (both current Steelers and prospective future ones) in these roles. I hope this adds to some understanding of different approaches to defense and facilitates more discussion on our draft prospects.