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Examining the ongoing transformation of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense

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Taking a look at how the Pittsburgh Steelers has changed, and will continue to change, in 2019.

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Training Camp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As training camp gets rolling, much attention will be paid to a transforming Steelers offense that will have to compensate for the loss of Antonio Brown. Talented as the mercurial Brown is, count me among those who believe his absence is a blessing in disguise. I am optimistic his production will be duplicated as Ben Roethlisberger spreads the football among a deep group of receivers and coordinator Randy Fichtner finds creative ways to use his promising young running backs.

A more complex transformation has been at work on the other side of the ball for a few seasons now, as the defense has moved away from its reliance on a base 3-4 scheme towards more of a hybrid philosophy. This article examines that transformation and what it means for the coming campaign.

One of the fundamental decisions any head coach or coordinator must make when assembling an offense or defense is whether to match their scheme to their personnel or their personnel to their scheme.

“System” guys, meaning those who tend to match personnel to scheme, generally do so because they have a scheme they either know extremely well or they truly believe in (likely both). They trust it, they can coach it, and they fill their roster with players who can execute it.

On offense, coaches who rely on a zone run game must find backs with patience, vision and good burst. Air Raid guys want agile linemen who can protect the quarterback. West Coast guys need a QB who can read defenses and get the ball out quickly.

On defense, the 4-3 requires ends who can rush the passer and a tackling machine at middle linebacker. The 4-2-5 demands a multi-dimensional box safety who can run like a defensive back and tackle like a backer. Cover-3 needs a free safety with great range. Cover-2 corners must be able to press, run and tackle. On it goes.

The advantage of building an offense or a defense around a scheme is that the familiarity coaches have with it allows them to know what works and what doesn’t work, how opponents will attack the scheme and how to counter their attack. Also, by finding players who can do what is required to make it successful, players are put into specific roles that maximize their abilities and increase their chance to succeed.

What if you can’t find those players, however? Or what if those players are so suited to the specific schemes a coach wants to run that there is little flexibility when change is required? Therein lies the weakness of the scheme-first approach.

This concern has relevance in Pittsburgh. Increasingly, as offenses have diversified and as football has become a more horizontally-based, pass-first game, the Steelers have found themselves hamstrung by their reliance on a base 3-4 defense.

On the defensive front, they have lacked a true two-gapping nose tackle in the mold of Casey Hampton who can command double teams, eat up blocks and anchor the A-gaps against the run for several years now. Javon Hargrave is a good football player but not well-suited as a 3-4 nose. Daniel McCullers is well-suited as a 3-4 nose but not a particularly good football player.

At outside linebacker, with the exception of TJ Watt, they have struggled recently to generate pressure. This is problematic, since the most important job of OLB’s in the 3-4 is to get to the quarterback. Jarvis Jones flamed out as a 3-4 edge rusher. Arthur Moats was limited. Bud Dupree is better in coverage than as a rusher but even there can be exploited by quicker slot receivers and backs in the flat. As offenses increasingly spread the field, having linebackers like Dupree covering receivers in space has exposed a weakness of the scheme.

On the inside, the loss of Ryan Shazier robbed them of a sideline-to-sideline backer who could pursue from the backside. Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich are tough as nails but better suited for the way football was played twenty years ago than it is today. The John Bostic and Sean Spence experiments did not go well. LJ Fort was a backup asked at times to be something more.

In the secondary, a host of recent corners have struggled to play adequate cover-2, the coverage of choice under Mike Tomlin. And since the departure of Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, their safety pairings have lacked half-field chemistry and struggled as the box-filling tacklers cover-2 requires. In short, the Steelers became, somewhere in the turnover from the 2011 Super Bowl squad to their current iteration, a 3-4 defense short on 3-4 personnel.

All of that is changing, however. The transformation of the defense from a 3-4 to more of a situational hybrid began a couple of seasons ago. It will be on full display in 2019. To call the Steelers a 3-4 team is no longer sufficient. They have assembled the pieces (on paper, at least) to be a legitimate matchup defense - a defense that can match its scheme to its personnel rather than trying to fit its personnel into a specific scheme.


THE CONSTRUCTION OF A HYBRID DEFENSE

The selection of Javon Hargrave in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft represented a turning point for the defense. With a clear need to upgrade from Steve McLendon at nose tackle, and with many clamoring for the team to take a prototypical 3-4 run stuffer like Baylor’s Andrew Billings to fill the void, the Steelers instead opted for the undersized (relatively-speaking) Hargrave from little-known South Carolina State.

Hargrave’s selection was one of the first obvious signs the Steelers were moving away from their long reliance on the 3-4. He was better suited to penetrate or to slant and twist than to anchor a gap. His selection signaled the Steelers were looking more for athletic linemen who could compress run gaps and rush the passer. This would allow them to play more two-DL looks with their outside linebackers acting as de facto 4-3 ends. It would also put four potential pass rushers along the front, thereby decreasing their reliance on second-level blitzers to generate pressure.

Subsequent drafts have been consistent with this desire to favor athleticism and versatility over 3-4 fit. TJ Watt, who was recruited to Wisconsin as a tight end, brought much needed agility to the outside backer spot when he was drafted in 2017 to supplant the stiff and ineffective Jones. Cam Sutton, whose size and speed made him desirable as a cover corner, particularly in man schemes, went in the third round of that draft. The 2018 1st round pick, safety Terrell Edmunds, was a massive upgrade athletically over Mike Mitchell, whose eroding skills limited his range and tackling ability. Fellow safety Marcus Allen was taken four rounds later in hopes he might fill the hybrid box safety role that was becoming so integral to the Steelers increasing reliance on sub packages. Even late round picks in the last few drafts like Sutton Smith, Ulysses Gilbert and Keion Adams have offered athleticism and versatility over fit.

In free agency, the Steelers scooped upon freshly released Joe Haden from the Browns in 2017 less because Haden fit their long-preferred cover-2 but because he was an established professional cornerback who could play a variety of schemes. Haden’s arrival coincided with an increase in man coverage in Pittsburgh, likely not a coincidence.

Their 2018 signing of Morgan Burnett was an overture to versatility as well. Though Burnett did not work out, the hope was he would fill the box safety role. That will now likely go to 2019 signee Mark Barron, with Allen a candidate to play there as well. Barron, a converted safety, represents significantly more speed at the second level than did both Burnett and last off-season’s other addition, John Bostic.

Corner Steven Nelson was signed this off-season too, in part because he is young, athletic, and versatile. Even AAF refugee Kameron Kelly, who was signed this spring after the league folded, was recognized in training camp this week by Coach Tomlin for (you guessed it) his versatility.

“He’s played some safety, he’s played some underneath sub packages,” Tomlin said. “He appears to have detail in multiple spots. That helps his case and ours.”

Then there has been the quest to replace Ryan Shazier. There is no doubt the Shazier injury set this defense back substantially. A budding superstar, Shazier made everyone else on the field better with his ability to cover ground and demand attention. He was the type of player offenses had to game-plan for. Replacing him was no small assignment.

The patchwork approach the Steelers attempted after Shazier went down in 2017 and again last season clearly failed. Optimism is high, however, that 2019 1st round selection Devin Bush will do a fair impersonation of Shazier at the second level for years to come. Bush is a modern sideline-to-sideline backer who can run, tackle and cover. He is well-suited for this evolving Steelers defense.

Some of these acquisitions did not succeed as anticipated; for others, it is too early to judge. But each has shown a determination to reconstruct the defense by acquiring versatile players who can execute multiple roles to better match the chess moves made by opposing offenses. The hope of this strategy is to avoid being exploited by their reliance on a true base scheme. The 3-4 is still on the defensive card in Pittsburgh. It’s just not the main event anymore.


SCHEMES, PERSONNEL AND SITUATIONS

What should we anticipate, then? What schemes will we see from the Steelers, and when will we see them? Here are a few we can expect, with personnel and situations.

3-4

The 3-4 defense will feature a front three of Cam Heyward, Hargrave and Tuitt with rotational play from Tyson Alualu and maybe some short yardage snaps for McCullers if he can learn to play with better leverage. Watt, Dupree, Bush and Williams will be the backers, unless Barron eats into Vince’s reps. Nelson and Haden should start at corner, with Edmunds and Sean Davis at safety.

We’ll see the 3-4 on obvious run downs or as a counter to heavier personnel groups like 12, 21 and 22. It should be our best run-stuffing group.

Here is a classic 3-4 look against a 12 personnel set from Cincinnati. Safety Sean Davis is rolled down to the linebacker level as an 8th box defender because 12 personnel gives the Bengals eight run gaps. The Steelers are in a cover-1 look here but they could easily play quarters against this formation and retain good safety run support. The Steelers have a five-man front with three physical down linemen, two edge-setting linebackers and the ability to play three men at the second level. Offensive formations like these, which were so common twenty years ago, are the reason for which the 3-4 was constructed.

3-3-5

The 3-3-5 swaps out a backer for a fifth defensive back, so this would likely remove Williams in favor of Barron or Hilton, depending on whether the Steelers want that fifth DB to be more of a box or coverage player.

If it’s Barron in the box safety role, this group could be used to match teams who are attempting to get to the edge with sweeps or outside zone plays or who are dinking and dunking the ball to backs and tight ends. Teams like Kansas City, Cincinnati and New Orleans come to mind. Removing Williams and inserting Barron with Bush inside and Watt (likely) in an overhang position gives the Steelers great lateral pursuit and tackling ability while retaining a sound four-man front with their three DL plus Dupree.

If it’s Hilton as a slot corner, the idea would be to get after the quarterback. Hilton has shown himself to be an effective blitzer. From this look, the Steelers could twist, loop, come from both edges or come up the gut with Bush. It’s a great blitzing defense that retains sound rush and coverage capabilities.

2-4-5

This is the look I like best for the Steelers against 11 personnel groups with big tight ends and strong run games. It’s a two-DL look with the insertion of a box safety, likely Barron, which would essentially put another linebacker on the field. With Barron, our seven box defenders would be:

DL: Heyward, Tuitt or Hargrave

LBs: Watt, Dupree, Bush, Williams

Box $: Barron

Contrast that to last season:

DL: Heyward, Tuitt or Hargrave

LBs: Watt, Dupree, Bostic, Williams

Box $: Burnett

This defense is WAY more athletic with Bush and Barron at the 2nd level than with Bostic and Burnett. It matches up much better against single-back sets. The prevalence of 11 Personnel throughout the league, in fact, may have contributed to the off-season pursuit of Bush and Barron as the Steelers sought to match speed with speed.

Teams may come at Barron in coverage but he won’t be asked to play much man. He is fine as a curl/flat defender. Instead of trying to “get by” with Burnett in the box, they will have an actual box player there.

The run defense from this look will remain staunch. With two of Heyward, Tuitt and Hargrave penetrating at the 1 and 3-techs and Williams having speed on either side of him, running the ball in the A and B gaps will be difficult without a lead back. This will allow Bush to scrape faster over the top while Barron will be a major upgrade as a tackler over Burnett. And, whereas Burnett may have been slightly better in coverage than Barron, Bush should be significantly better than Bostic. They get an explosive slot blitzer in Barron, too, which could help offset any coverage issues.

Here’s a 2-4-5 look with Burnett as the box safety. He is weak into the boundary because the Chiefs have put both of their receivers to the top of the screen:

With Barron in this spot, they add a faster athlete and a better tackler at the second level. I’d certainly rather have Barron cleaning up sweep into the boundary, fighting through linemen to defend screen or pursuing the backside cutback alleys than Burnett.

2-4-5 Nickel

If coverage is a problem, the Steelers can always go to true Nickel. This would likely be the same personnel as the 2-4-5 Box but with Hilton in the slot replacing Barron and Barron potentially bumping inside to replace Williams. This may be their defense-of-choice against 10 personnel looks or even some smaller 11 groups.

Below we see this look with Hilton as the Nickel. It’s 2nd and 10, a passing down most likely, and the Steelers want a true defensive back to counter Cincinnati's 11 personnel group. Hilton has proven reliable in that role. Should teams attempt to exploit him with bigger slot receivers, Cam Sutton, who is said to be off to a strong start at camp, could be a viable alternative. This could be an interesting battle to watch, actually. Hilton, who is on a one-year restricted tender and seeking a long-term contract from the Steelers, could be let go after this season if the bigger, younger (and potentially cheaper) Sutton proves reliable.

2-3-6 (Dime)

When the Steelers want to maximize their coverage ability, they now have the athletes to play an effective Dime package.

Below is a shot of the Dime look the Steelers had success with in their game last season against New England. The back six consists of three corners (Sensebaugh, Hilton and Haden) and three safeties (Burnett, Edmunds and Davis). This season, Nelson will be an upgrade at corner in this package and Barron or Allen (or perhaps even Kameron Kelly) will offer more athleticism than Burnett.

The beauty of this look is how it lets the Steelers mask and rotate coverages. Look carefully at the photo. What coverage is this? It looks like cover-1 but it could just as easily morph into cover-2, 3 or quarters.

As a matter of fact, this actually becomes cover-2 post-snap as Edmunds drops to a deep half, Davis rotates out of the middle to take the other deep half and Burnett sinks into the high hole.

One of the reasons the Steelers held the Patriots to 10 points in this game was their ability to disguise their coverages out of Dime. If they can play sound run defense on early downs and put teams in passing situations, they now have the athletes to make their Dime package effective.

With the ability now to have legitimate counter moves for just about any personnel group or formation an opposing offense throws at them, the Steelers may have put some of the matchup problems that dogged them the past few years in their rear view. We shouldn’t see any more Buck linebackers locked up on wide receivers or aging safeties trying to play half-field coverage. The defense is faster, more athletic and, yes, more versatile than it’s been in years. The change from a base 3-4 to a hybrid defense is pretty much complete. Now it’s time to see whether the transformation pays off.