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Analyzing the Pittsburgh Steelers ‘Midfield’ defensive roles and depth

Defensive roles matter more than positions in modern day football.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

This article first appeared in 2018 as part of the pre-draft analysis. It explained why analysts insist that modern defenses center around “roles” more than “positions” and then concluded that Pittsburgh needed to upgrade the available talent at Mack-, Nickel-, and Dime-ILB; could benefit from a super-stud athlete at Buck ILB; and could also use a young athlete to play Safety behind Sean Davis and Morgan Burnett. Burnett is gone but the team has done a lot to address the rest of it. So now seems like an appropriate time to revisit the analysis with an eye toward current conditions.

NOTE: All statements regarding football X’s and O’s were reviewed and corrected by Cliff Harris Is Still A Punk. You should absolutely read this in conjunction with his fabulous 2018 piece on Cover-2 Safeties from the following week.)

For the past few years there’s been all but universal agreement that Mack ILB (the gap left by Ryan Shazier) was the Steelers’ biggest hole. The Steelers addressed this sideways in the 2018 draft, by selecting a multifaceted Strong Safety in Round 1 (Terrell Edmunds) and then doubling down with the selection of a hybrid SS/ILB type in Round 5 (Marcus Allen). Then they addressed it again by paying fairly big money to a true, if undersized, free agent Mack ILB in 2019 (Mark Barron) before making a huge trade up on draft day to select Mack ILB Devin Bush. So what does the situation look like now?

What do the terms really mean?

Most of you know that I’m a lawyer in my real life. Here’s a lawyer’s truism for you: most arguments come down to competing definitions. It therefore makes sense to start the discussion by defining the terms I mean to discuss: Buck ILB, Mack ILB, Strong Safety, and the various “hybrid” positions like Nickle LB, Dime LB and Box Safety.

In brief, the Buck ILB is an off-ball linebacker who is 50 lbs. shy of being a super-mobile defensive lineman - and who plays that way. Buck ILB’s are the guys with miniature footballs running through their veins instead of corpuscles, and DNA that spirals tighter than a bulleted slant to a receiver over the middle.

In terms of duties, about 70% of the Buck ILB’s attention needs to focus on heading downhill in run support and/or on an inside blitz. This is the sap [ahem!] tough guy who mans up when Rosie Nix comes barrelling forward hellbent on justifying his existence, and some poor soul has to stop him cold at the line of scrimmage. In the absence of a careening fullback your Buck ILB will routinely take on pulling guards that outweigh him by at least 30%, crash into gaps the offensive line is trying to clear, make the tackle on inside runs, and blitz up the middle on pass plays. The other 30% of his job lies in coverage duty on backs and TE’s. Buck ILB’s tend to play in the 245-255 range because they need that mass to survive the constant impacts, but it also makes them vulnerable when asked to play in coverage. They aren’t completely lost like a defensive lineman would be, but they’re likely to have a real tough time and that makes them favorite targets for a canny QB who thrives on finding the right matchup.

The moral of the story: “Don’t get fooled, but if you must get fooled do it stopping the run.”

Mack ILB’s have more and more varied duties based on a 50/50 split in attention. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Field general. Mack ILB’s wear green dot, make the defensive calls, and serve as the hub of the wheel for communications. Leadership skills and football IQ are at a bigger premium here than anywhere else on the defense. The Buck ILB can handle this, but it works better if it’s the Mack because that position has to make the most (and biggest) adjustments. They have to read more keys than Buck ILB’s and can’t afford to focus as heavily on downhill run support. High football IQ is more than just a desirable part of the Mack ILB puzzle; it is a fundamental component of the job.
  • Communication skills. Wasn’t this just mentioned as part of “field generalship?” Yes. Live with it. I am repeat the point to emphasize how big a part above-the-neck assets play in the success or failure of any Mack. It matters that much.
  • Run support. Mack ILB’s are the run-and-chase specialists who shoot through lateral gaps to catch RB’s and screens heading toward the edge. Buck ILB’s do more of the unseen dirty work but Mack ILB’s have to use that help to make enough splash plays for the both of them. Burst speed and football IQ are the premium skills here, which is why Mack ILB’s typically play in the 230-240 range and are built lighter than Buck ILB’s. But that comes at a cost because they still need to defeat/avoid blockers and to tackle even the toughest RB’s when they arrive. It’s a constant trade off that drives film watchers crazy. The size dropped to gain extra speed inevitably causes issues getting away from O-linemen who reach the second level, and removes some oomph when the Mack ILB reaches the ball carrier. It is a no-win situation that even Shazier got criticized for.
  • Coverage duties. Mack ILB’s routinely cover all the escape hatch and check down throws, along with zone coverage duties in the middle of the field. They are supposed to be good at the things that get their slightly bigger running mates exposed. And just to complicate things, modern offenses will often convert those patterns into something like a TE seam route that calls for defensive back skills like change of direction, top notch click-and-close burst to tackle the catch before a slot receiver can dart away, and enough foot speed to keep up with receiving oriented TE’s. It takes an amazing amount of pure athleticism to handle both the run support and pass coverage roles.
  • Versatility and disguise. NFL defenses can change entire games and seasons with big plays that come from tricking the opposing QB into thinking Scheme A and then throwing into Scheme B. Mack ILB’s and Strong Safeties are the most versatile athletes on any given defense, and thus the most likely to switch up their apparent job after the QB makes his read and snaps the ball. Again, this is the position where football IQ, communication/leadership skills, and pure athleticism need to combine into something powerfully unique.

Moral of the story: “Don’t get fooled; adjust really, really fast if you do; and be ready to fill in for anyone else’s mistakes.”

The next step on the continuum gets to the hybrid LB/Safety types. The biggest are the Nickel LB’s. These are true, if usually undersized Linebackers with serious coverage chops (for a Linebacker). Nickel LB’s replace some bigger player to counter spread offenses and in situations where it’s okay to give up five yards but not eight or nine. What bigger player? It can be anyone from the Buck ILB to an OLB or a Defensive Lineman. I can’t be more precise because there are many dozens of variations in these sub packages. A Nickel LB who’s exceptional at coverage may also act as a third Safety, though it is just as common to see an oversized Safety come in to play faux ILB. Run stuffing 40%, Pass coverage 60%. Nickel LB shades over into Dime LB, which is almost always manned by an oversized Safety rather than an extra-quick Linebacker. Call it 30/70. Classic Strong Safeties come in at more like 20/80.

There was an era when hybrid types occupied a starting role on many defenses under the name “Box Safety.” Box Safeties were supposed to be the do-all answer to whatever midfield adjustments the defensive play call required. E.g., take the Steelers’ beloved Fire-X cross blitz where the Buck and Mack ILB’s cross stunt behind the NT. On those plays the Box Safety became the primary run-fitter at the 2nd level, coming downhill at the snap and thinking run-first. And he’d better be a good tackler because the RB can hit a seam and be off to the races if that stunt gets picked up. Other coverage schemes – and you want to leave the QB wondering before the snap – ask the Box Safety to become an alley player guarding against flat routes by RB’s and seam routes by TE’s. That’s typical on stunts from the OLB’s. Then on the next play he might have been asked to drop back into cover-3 against a heavy personnel group, or to be the “force” player against runs toward the edge or passes into the flat where the Mack is likely to get swallowed by one of those extra offensive linemen.

Once upon a time Pittsburgh had a single player who could do all of these things at an expert level. He excelled at everything from taking on kickout blocks to tackling in space, manning the 2nd level like a linebacker, covering tight ends like a Corner, and dropping back in Cover-2 like an extra Free Safety. His versatility and burst toward the play put the fear of God into opposing QB’s because he made it all but impossible to make a pre-snap read on what the defensive scheme would really be. And, after an almost pitiful rookie year, he developed such a high football IQ that he regularly turned the tables and managed to predict what the opposing QB was going to do.

There is a reason Troy Polamalu is going into the HOF about three seconds after he’s eligible.

The “Box Safety” name has died out in favor of sub package roles because there aren’t that many Troys in the universe. The writing went up on the wall when even the players started to describe themselves with terms like,“too small to play linebacker and too slow to play safety.” Modern defenses get better results by dividing the duties among multiple sub-package role players than hoping to find a King of All Trades. But those roles still have to be filled - each and every one - or the opponent will pick that little weakness apart. And modern offenses have developed numerous plays to focus on the soft spot in any given defense. The downside of sub-packages is their tendency to telegraph the defense’s strengths and weaknesses to a really smart QB. Athletes who can play multiple roles let the defense disguise its plan, which is why coaches put so high a value on versatility, but they are never as common as any coach would prefer.

The next steps on the gradient would be Free Safety and Corner-Who-Can-Tackle but we won’t go there. One hopes that the point has been made already. NFL starters need to fill several roles at once, and versatility is a big part of the difference between ‘starter’ and ‘star.’ Sub package players exist for situations where their focused expertise is worth the risk of showing the offense some of your cards. Just to use two examples, Terrell Edmunds is (or so we believe) a Strong Safety with enough size to play Dime ILB, enough speed to play Cover 2, and enough pure athleticism and football IQ to handle all the hybrid roles in between. Think of him as a bigger Polamalu who hasn’t ‘arrived’ and might be missing an inch or two of that HOF burst. There is a reason why the F.O. Put so high a value on his services! Moving up toward the line we see that Ryan Shazier, all joking aside, lived at the Mack ILB position but had the versatility to play Nickel and Dime ILB with equal facility, and really might have served as an emergency-only Safety. Devin Bush is hopefully cut from the exact same cloth.

Who Fills These Roles For the 2019 Steelers?

In the ideal world, every role would be manned by a quality starter, a quality backup pushing for snaps, and a defensive multitool for emergency situations. Here is a list of the roles we just defined and the current players who man them.

  • Buck ILB’s. Williams and Matakevich. Great football players who are limited athletes. Corpuscles, check; DNA... almost. Both are quite good at the 70% of the job that aims forward but can be exposed in the 30% that requires more movement in space. The #3 Buck player is likely to be Anthony Chickillo and I would not be at all surprised if word started to leak out that he was pushing for more snaps in this capacity. Buck ILB is the sort of do-it-all role where a tough, smart athlete like him could excel. But is he really more mobile than the other two? Watch for all the subtle ways that Pittsburgh’s Buck ILB’s sacrifice their own stats so the Macks can make more splash plays. They really do act as a team.
  • Mack ILB’s. Mark Barron, Devin Bush, Ulysses Gilbert III, and Ryan Shazier’s ghost. Barron started his career as a Box Safety but quickly added 10-20 pounds of muscle and has been a solid if undersized Mack ILB for other teams; a true starter but not a star. Devin Bush was drafted to be a star but will be a rookie and we saw above how hard it must be to grasp the mental part of this position. Gilbert, another rookie, has just as much pure athletic talent as Bush but played at a lower level and faces a steeper and longer learning curve. And of course the ghost won’t help before 2020, if then. This group offers a significant improvement on the 2018 lineup (Fort, Bostic, and the ghost) but has the downside of being a lot more raw. Even Barron, the veteran, is new to this particular defense. I hate to say this, but no one should be surprised at an early season loss or two based purely on misdiagnoses and miscommunications attributable to growing pains on the part of these new/young field generals. OTOH, the end of the year that should have converted into an area of strength. Savvy fans will carefully follow all ILB-related discussions with code words like “learning rate”, “communication skills,” “football IQ” and the like.
  • Nickel ILB’s. This is Mark Barron’s truest home on a football field and he’s good at it. Devin Bush should be at least as good once he matures as an NFL pro but it is going to take some time because the position is so tough from the mental perspective. Gilbert = Bush Lite with much further to go before he arrives. Marcus Allen and Terrell Edmunds could theoretically handle these duties too but would be so undersized that fans would expect to see either mounting injuries or vulnerability to inside runs. Look to see if Marcus Allen has added some bulk for extra strength or dropped some in search of extra speed, and also for unique sub packages based on the new levels of midfield speed. Our film watchers will be busy bees trying to explain all the novelties and twists.
  • Dime ILB’s. We’re rich! Rich I say! And what a change that is from the 2018 predraft season. Terrell Edmunds should excel at this role; Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield live here on their lazy days just like Barron does at the Nickel ILB role; and both Mark Barron and Devin Bush should be able to handle these duties in a pinch or when the team wants to cross up the QB’s reads. But are Allen and Dangerfield limited to this role and to special teams? More of the same when it comes to creative looks and packages.
  • Strong Safety. Terrell Edmunds first, and Terrell Edmunds second. A significant Sophomore Leap by last year’s #1 pick will be all but essential for this defense to reach its true potential. The good news is that everything points to that leap being all but guaranteed. He was already showing the signs in late 2018 and the reports to date from 2019’s workouts have been nothing but positive. Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield will compete to be Edmunds’ backup but both are short on the pure speed you want. Sean Davis can play Strong Safety but there is even less depth at Free Safety so that isn’t a great idea. Stay healthy Terrell!
  • Free Safety. Sean Davis, followed by... crickets? There has been a lot of speculation about whether the hyperathletic, oversized, but underpolished CB Brian Allen could shift over to this role, and whether one of the other CB’s could handle the mental side if Davis had to slide closer to the box. This uncertainty is why many BTSC experts expected to see a Free Safety get picked in the 2019 draft. That could-have-been player was the true cost of trading up to get Devin Bush; the class lacked depth after Round 3.
  • Corner Who Tackles. Pittsburgh has been good about drafting Corners who are willing to throw their bodies into the pile even if it isn’t their true metier. Steven Nelson, Cam Sutton, and Mike Hilton are as ferocious as terriers, albeit not a whole lot bigger from the NFL perspective. Brian Allen, Artie Burns, and Justin Layne all have the size but remain unproven on the coverage end, which matters more. Joe Haden has the will but not the size, and every true fan cringes when he’s asked to mix it up with men who are 30-50 lbs. bigger. Let the master do his work and leave him alone...

All that should illustrate the extent to which Pittsburgh has shored up the middle of its defense over the past few years. The only real question marks go to depth. Buck ILB has two solid players but no potential stars in Williams and Matakevich. Mack ILB has a better starter in Mark Barron, a brand new bundle of unlimited potential in Devin Bush, and an Athlete-To-Hide in Ulysses Gilbert. That position will be S-E-T set once the players absorb the above-neck field general duties. Then come the Nickle- and Dime-ILB roles, which are packed to the bursting point with Barron, Bush and Gilbert on the heavy side, plus Terrell Edmunds, Marcus Allen and Jordan Dangerfield on the lighter side. Who knows what funky sub packages DC Kevin Butler will come up with?

The past two offseasons have seen a greater investment in hub-of-the-wheel, midfield defensive talent than any other part of the team. It doesn’t hurt that players like this make ideal special teamers too.

More questions exist at the speed-intensive, true Safety positions but you have to peer a bit to get there. The starters look good, and maybe a lot more than that if Terrell Edmunds makes the Sophomore Leap we all expect. That tandem of Edmunds and Davis could - should? - be the best we’ve seen since the days of Polamalu and Clark. The holes start if Edmunds fails to mature, if either gets hurt, or if Sean Davis can’t be extended for future years. The backups at Strong Safety are a step too slow for comfort, while the depth behind Davis comes down to speculation about The Little Corner Who Could. But you can’t have everything.

Pittsburgh’s defense has the potential to rise back toward greatness in 2019 and beyond. The sagging talent level that occurred with the loss of Shazier has actually been addressed and there are no obvious holes left. It would of course help a lot if one of the lengthy youngsters (Burns, Allen, Layne) could step up to claim a boundary Corner slot, but it’s not like Haden and Nelson amount to a weakness. It would of course be nice if the team had a crazy athlete like LVE to man the Buck ILB position, but football heart may matter even more there than it does at other spots and that is one asset both Williams and Matakevich can boast about in spades. As for the D-Line, it boasts three actual stars to man 212 positions, and has good depth as well. Hard to complain about that for the next few years! And at OLB Watt looks like a star and Dupree no less than a good player who we pick on for failing to meet our statistical demands. The only real point of concern I can see is depth behind the starting Safeties, and they call it “depth” because you never want to dig down there in the first place.

The time has finally arrived to hope for a return to defensive greatness, and to expect nothing less than a Top 5-10 unit overall.