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2016 Pittsburgh Steelers defense primer

The Steelers are set to kickoff their 2016 season. Here’s what to look for when their defense takes the field.

The Steelers have employed a 3-4 defensive scheme since 1982. They made the 3-4 the envy of the NFL during Dick Lebeau’s two stints with the team. Everyone knows the Steelers run the 3-4. Although they still are a “base 3-4” defense, under Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler the Steelers employ multiple looks. What should we expect to see when the defense is on the field in 2016? We will take a look at which defensive schemes Butler tends to employ against different offensive personnel and/or situations. First, I want to give a brief review of defensive line “shades” or technique.

Every gap (the space between two blockers) along the offensive line is lettered from the center outward in each direction, beginning with “A.” Where a defender lines up in relation to the blocker is assigned a number, again from the center outward, in each direction:

As you can see from the diagram, a defensive player aligned directly across from (“head up on”) a blocker is given an even number. Any such player is said to be “two-gapping,” meaning they are responsible for the gap on either side of the blocker. A two-gapping player will read and react, stand his ground, then shed his blocker once the direction of the run is determined.

Conversely, a defensive player aligned in between blockers, in a gap, or shaded to one side of a blocker, is assigned an odd number. Any such player is said to be “one-gapping,” meaning they are responsible for the gap they are “in,” or closer to. A one-gapping player will attempt to penetrate his gap, causing disruption in the blocking scheme, and/or backfield.

Now that we understand gaps and defensive line techniques, let’s dive into the Steelers defensive fronts.


We will begin with their classic “3-4 Okie”:

Here we see the Steelers use a nose tackle and two defensive ends, aligned “head up” on their blockers. This was the front made famous by the 3-4 teams of Dick Lebeau, with two-gappers like Aaron Smith, Brett Kiesel, and of course, Casey “Big Snack” Hampton. The two inside linebackers are the “Buck” to the strong side, and the “Mack” to the weak side. The Buck is typically bigger and stronger than the Mack. This is because the Buck, playing the strongside, is required to take on more blockers, while the Mack is more free to run sideline-to-sideline.

The Steelers usually employ their 3-4 front vs “Pro” or 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE) and 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE). In the picture above, the Broncos are in a 2 TE set, but with both TE’s aligned to the right. The Steelers are still highly effective vs the run in this front.

Next is another 3-4 front. It is a a slight variation called the “Eagle”:

Notice the difference in Tuitt (#91) and Heyward (#97). Instead of two-gapping, both players are in a one-gap position. Keith Butler has employed this defense more, allowing his two defensive ends to take advantage of their talents; attacking and disrupting the offensive backfield. The “Eagle” front is used against the same personnel as the “Okie” front.


The Steelers use a different front when facing 11 (1 RB, 1 TE) or 10 personnel. They remove the NT, and replace him with an extra defensive back, normally a cornerback, to counter the 3rd WR on offense. Here is what the Steelers nickel defense typically looks like:

Notice the position of Tuitt and Heyward. They are aligned as defensive tackles would be in a 4-3 front. Moats (#55) and Harrison (#92) are on the line of scrimmage (LOS), functioning as defensive ends in a 4-3 defense, albeit from a standing position. I have labelled the LB’s with both their 3-4 names as well as their corresponding 4-3 monickers, as Shazier and Timmons take on those roles. Also of note is Will Allen, the strong safety, playing close to the LOS, much as a weak side linebacker would.

In all three fronts, Lawrence Timmons, as the Buck LB, is closer to the TE than the Mack LB, Shazier. I mention this as it relates to covering TE’s “down the seam.” It’s been a topic of frustration from fans, as it seems to be a consistent weakness in the Steelers defense. One apparent “fix” might be to employ Shazier as the Buck. With his speed and athleticism, Shazier would seem to be more suited to running with the faster TE’s in pass coverage. The caveat there is, as the Buck, Shazier would be required to take on blockers, not allowed to roam free. This would not play to his advantage, taking away from his play-making abilities in the run game. Something to keep in mind as you watch the defense this season.

Another front used by Butler with their nickel personnel:

This is the same defensive personnel (2 DL, 4 LB, 5 DB) as their “regular” nickel. We can see the alignment of the players is quite different, with both OLB’s to one side, and 1 DL standing up over center. I can’t say definitively which offensive set this front is used against. I can say it tends to be used vs 10 personnel and/or in obvious pass situations.

Since NFL teams as a whole continue to trend toward more passing, with the use of more 3 WR sets, the nickel package is by far the most often used package by the Steelers defense. In 2015, they utilized their nickel package about 70% of the time.


The Steelers began replacing Timmons with another safety (Robert Golden) in their nickel package during the latter part of the 2015 season. This typically came in 3rd and long (10+ yards) situations, where the threat of a run was minimal. Here is the the Steelers dime look:

Senquez Golson was going to be the starting slot cornerback, by all accounts. Sean Davis appears to assuming that role as of now. My hunch is, that had Golson not been injured, we would see the Dime defense used more frequently, with Davis brought in as the 3rd safety. I am interested to see when, and if, the Steelers use their dime defense in light of the loss of Golson.


Against heavy (23 personnel), the Steelers front typically looks like this:

There is still a small threat of a pass, but the obvious directive is to stop the run first.


I wrote a fanpost this past April about the 3-3-5 defense. I explained it’s use in college football and how it’s possible implementation in the NFL, particularly by the Steelers. The research done, combined with the feedback from many knowledgeable readers, left me with the belief that although it offered intriguing possibilities, the 3-3-5 scheme is likely not a viable scheme in the NFL.

To my surprise, I came across evidence of the Steelers using a 3-3-5 this preseason. It came in Week 2 vs the Eagles:

This was against 21 personnel. The TE (Celek) and one of the RB’s (Sproles) were split out as WR’s. We can’t see the CB to the top of the screen (Cockrell), but he is covering the WR to the far right. Gay is covering Celek to the bottom. Sean Davis, as the slot cornerback, is on the slot WR, with Timmons over Sproles.

I was excited to see this. As I searched for more plays where this scheme was used, I came away disappointed. This was the only instance I could find. Was it perhaps, a mistake? Was Davis on the field when Moats should have been? Even if it was intentional, the preseason is often used more to focus on getting players time on the field more than practicing schemes. It is a time for experimentation there as well, however. While I don’t harbor much hope the 3-3-5 will see the light of day, I at least have visual evidence of it’s use by the Steelers.

We’ve taken a look at the most common defensive fronts used by the Steelers. To summarize when certain defensive schemes are used:

-vs 21, 12 personnel: 3-4 Okie, Eagle

-vs 11, 10, personnel: 2-4 Nickel, Alt Nickel

-vs 11, 10 personnel in 3rd and long: Dime

-vs 23 personnel in short yardage: Goal Line

-vs ????? : 3-3

With Bud Dupree being placed on IR, Keith Butler may need to be more creative than he was in 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised if Butler adds a new wrinkle or two. I almost expect it. With that caveat, however, you should expect to see these defensive packages vs these personnel groupings/situations, most of the time.

I hope this has been helpful in understanding some basics of the Steelers defense, and enhances your experience as you watch this season.