The Pittsburgh Steelers are nothing if not consistent. They have been principally owned by the Rooney family since 1933. They have had three head coaches since 1969. And they have been running a base 3-4 defense since 1982. One need look no further than the franchise’s six shiny Lombardi trophies to understand that this consistency has served them well. Still, as Bob Dylan once sang, “The times they are a-changing.” When it comes to defense in Pittsburgh, Dylan’s refrain rings true.
As many around BTSC and elsewhere have observed, the term “base” is antiquated due to the league-wide trend towards sub packages and personnel groupings. Offenses rarely align in 21 personnel sets anymore in which a traditional fullback and tight end are on the field together. Instead, they are employing three, four and even five wide receiver packages to take advantage of rules changes that make it a felony to touch a receiver or to violate a quarterback’s personal space. In response, defenses are choosing to match these packages with Nickel and Dime groupings that get an extra defensive back or two on the field. Thus, the Steelers are in their base so infrequently that defensive coordinator Keith Butler told The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly in 2016 that the 3-4 was “almost obsolete.”
This raises an important question. If the Steelers base is “almost obsolete,” what will they actually be playing? If our defensive acquisitions in free agency and the draft are any indication, it seems likely we should expect a heavy dose of both 3-3-5 (Nickel) and 2-3-6 (Dime) looks in 2018. This article breaks down these schemes and how the Steelers might use them.
The 3-4, the Nickel and the Dime are all versatile packages that allow for three- or four-man fronts, multiple coverages and a variety of blitzes. Principally, the biggest difference is the personnel involved. The difference between the 3-4 and the 3-3-5 involves the installation of a $LB, or “Big Nickel,” player. The $LB is a strong safety-type who is athletic enough to cover receivers in the slot and physical enough to tackle at the linebacker level. Imagine building a defender in a lab in which the abilities of corners, safeties and linebackers are incorporated to varying degrees. That’s your $LB.
The Steelers love the $LB so much that they added three players this off-season (free agent Morgan Burnett and draftees Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen) whose abilities fit the $LB profile. The Steelers now have the flexibility to match offensive personnel groupings with three or more receivers by swapping a $LB for an outside linebacker (likely Bud Dupree). Consider the following:
In comparing the two images, the Steelers have gained athleticism in both alleys in their Nickel look by inserting Edmunds (or Allen) and rolling down Burnett. All three players have the size, speed and physicality to play at the second level. They should also be competent tackling in space, although some have noted Edmunds has a weakness in this regard. We shall see.
In a purer passing situation, the acquisitions of Burnett, Edmunds and Allen give the Steelers greater flexibility to employ their Dime look. The Dime swaps out both a defensive lineman and an inside linebacker for a slot corner (likely Mike Hilton) and the $LB. Now, with six defensive backs on the field, the slot corner assumes the $LB’s Nickel duties while the $LB moves inside where he is responsible for covering crossing and seam routes from slot receivers and tight ends. Meanwhile, the team’s four best pass rushers (likely Heyward, Tuitt, Watt and Dupree) can be aggressive getting after the quarterback. If an offense runs the football against the Dime, the four down linemen should keep blockers from getting clean shots at the $LB while the $LB can use his athleticism and tackling ability to play like a linebacker. The Dime, then, would likely look like this:
The personnel used in the Dime makes it a drastic departure from the base 3-4 and therefore probably only viable as a passing or long-yardage defense. Edmunds and Allen are both physical players, and the Steelers are admittedly thin at the inside linebacker position. Still, I can’t imagine Butler would want either of them plugged in at the Mack or Buck in a situation where the offense might run the ball.
On the other hand, the Nickel may be used more frequently given our new personnel and the fact Dupree has struggled to be an every-down defender. Substituting the $LB for an OLB may seem like a subtle change, but it actually alters the philosophy of the defense in ways that could be beneficial. Here’s how:
“SPILL” vs. “CAGE”
All defenses want to get more speed on the field, but not at the expense of physicality. While it might seem obvious that a 255-pound outside linebacker would be tougher against the run than a 220-pound $LB, that isn’t necessarily true. A “spill” technique, where our edge-defenders rip across the face of a kick-out block to clog the intended hole and force the running back to bounce outside, would allow the alley defenders in the Nickel (Edmunds/Allen and Burnett) to run down backs in space. “Spilling” the ball seems a smart alternative to the traditional “cage” technique used in the base 3-4. In the traditional 3-4 with two OLBs on the field, our edge-defenders “cage” kick-out blocks by taking them on with their inside arm, keeping their outside arm free and forcing running backs to cut up inside of them where our inside linebackers must make tackles. Given the current state of our inside linebacking corps—and the difficulties of Dupree in particular as an edge-setter—this may not be the wisest course.
Consider the diagrams below. The first depicts a 3-4 look with Dupree as the 9-tech (outside shade on the tight end) where he must cage a power run and force the ball-carrier to cut inside. To do this effectively, Dupree must play at the line of scrimmage and not get moved by the kicker. Getting “kicked out” (driven off his ground by the block) or running too far upfield (as Dupree has a tendency to do) will open up an off-tackle seam for the back to run through.
If Dupree does his job and forces an inside cut, the Mack and Buck backers must shed their blocks and make sound tackles. The good news is they’re tackling in confined spaces where it’s hard for a back to make them miss. The bad news is, even if they diagnose the play correctly, fill quickly, shed the block of the OL or tight end and make a sound tackle, the play might still gain four yards, which is a win for the offense. The “cage” technique relies on a physical and technically-sound edge-setter (think James Harrison in his prime) to turn runs inside and a tackling-machine at inside backer (Luke Kuechly comes to mind) to take it from there. Presently, the Steelers have no one resembling either on their roster.
The second diagram shows our 3-3-5 Nickel. It removes Dupree, replaces him at the 9-tech with TJ Watt and installs either the strong safety (Burnett) or the $LB (Edmunds or Allen) in the alley to the tight end. Here, we’ve inserted Burnett, with Edmunds in the opposite alley over the slot receiver. Now, against the same power run, Watt will use his quickness to “spill” the kick-out block by crossing the face of the pulling guard to create a pile in the hole. This forces the back to bounce outside. Burnett, who is aligned at 6 yards depth (more on that momentarily), has a free run down the alley to the football. With a good read, he will be able to attack the ball-carrier at the line of scrimmage before he can turn up the field and square his shoulders. Burnett, Edmunds and Allen must all prove they can tackle in space to make the spill technique (and thus the 3-3-5) effective. On paper, however, the odds of any of those three making a sound open-field tackle against a running back seem greater than Dupree, Williams or Bostic suddenly morphing into 2008 James Harrison and 2015 Luke Kuechly.
COVER-1/COVER-3 vs. COVER-2
The “spill” technique, then, relies on aggressive run support from the strong safety and the $LB. In a base 3-4 Cover-2 scheme, it doesn’t make sense to spill because safeties are primarily deep defenders against the pass. As a result, they tend to align around 12 yards off the ball. This makes it almost impossible for them to defend runs in the alley. There’s just too much ground to cover. In the 3-3-5 Nickel, however, Cover-1 (man) or Cover-3 (3-deep zone) are the preferred coverages. The strong safety and $LB are assigned either to man coverage on a slot receiver or tight end (Cover-1) or to defend shallow flat routes (Cover-3). Either way, they are aligned about six yards behind the line of scrimmage, making them viable run defenders in the alley.
The Steelers haven’t played a lot of Cover-1 in the past, but indications are they are moving in that direction. We saw a heavy dose of it against the Patriots last season, and new defensive backs coach Tom Bradley has stated publicly that he prefers to play man rather than zone. Cornerbacks Joe Haden and Artie Burns seem more than capable of being man defenders on the outside, and from the Nickel, Burnett and Edmunds/Allen are certainly preferable man-defenders over any of our linebackers. Cover-1 pairs nicely with Cover-3 as well, since the pre-snap look is the same (consider the diagram below). Thus, we could easily disguise our coverage from Nickel.
Finally, given our inability (unwillingness?) to acquire a pure free safety this off-season, we lack a true ball-hawk on the back end to rely much on Cover-2, where the safeties must cover half the field. Cover-1 requires a single free safety to act as a centerfielder, read the quarterback’s eyes and help with deep balls. Mike Mitchell was our Cover-1 free safety last season and, at the risk of starting another BTSC debate over his performance, I’ll simply say he lacked the athleticism at that point in his career to play there at a high level. Sean Davis, who will likely fill that role in 2018, certainly has the physical tools to succeed. Whether he masters the mental aspect of the position remains to be seen (getting Davis up to speed at FS was likely a factor in the hiring of Bradley). Cover-3, meanwhile, divides the back end into deep thirds, which are manned by the two corners and the free safety, while the underneath zones are covered by the inside backers, the strong safety and the $LB. The weakness of Cover-3 is in the underneath zones, where there are four defenders instead of the five who play there in Cover-2. Having speed at that level in the form of Burnett and Edmunds/Allen should mitigate some of those problems. Mixing Cover-1 with Cover-3 will also help keep offenses off-balance. And, if we want to play Cover-2, we can still rotate to two-high from Nickel as well. Thus, the coverages we can play in the Nickel seem better suited to our current roster when defending the pass.
Putting this all together, what does it mean personnel-wise? Consider the chart below for a breakdown of potential groupings. How much we play each, and who fills which roles, will depend on multiple factors: opponent tendencies, player development, substitutions and rotations, injuries, etc. There are a lot of variables. However, if there are no true surprises along the way, our packages should look something like this:
There will be some interesting position battles going into training camp, then. Will Edmunds lock down the $LB role or will Allen challenge him for time? What about Mike Hilton? He was a legit playmaker in 2017. Is he a candidate to play in the Base or the Nickel somewhere? Cam Sutton showed promise as well. Where might he fit in? Is Bostic a lock at the Buck or will we bring in another veteran to challenge him?
Even more compelling will be the frequency with which we play these looks. It has been estimated that we played about 30% of our defensive snaps in the base 3-4 last year. Given our roster additions, and the increasing offensive trend towards multiple wide-receiver groupings, our package deployment could look something like this in 2018:
Base 3-4: 25-30%
Short Ydg and Other: 10%
If that’s the case, so-called situational players like Edmunds, Allen or Hilton could see the field as much as Dupree, while players like Heyward, Burnett and Watt will be indispensable for their ability to play in all packages.
In summary, “three yards and a cloud of dust” football is long gone while “speed in space” is the new rage. The additions of Morgan Burnett, Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen are an appropriate response, then, and indicate we could see a lot more of the 3-3-5 Nickel and even the 2-3-6 Dime this season. The advantages these schemes present over the traditional 3-4 in defending multiple receiver sets are obvious, which should lead to even less of the old base in Pittsburgh. Whether that will be a good thing or a bad thing for the Steelers remains to be seen. Regardless, the times they are a-changing, indeed.