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The Steelers replacing Mark Barron’s versatility could be trickier than you think

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The Pittsburgh Steelers will be without Mark Barron in 2020, and replacing him might be trickier than you think.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by: 2019 Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

A few weeks back, Michael Beck wrote this article on the possibility of the Steelers selecting a safety with their first pick in the upcoming draft. The logic of this approach would be to allow Terrell Edmunds to play closer to the football at times, where many think he is best, while addressing the need for depth at the safety position.

This scenario is a possibility for more than the reasons stated above. It would also address (seemingly) what may be the biggest existing hole in the defense at present: the role recently occupied by Mark Barron, whose presence in the team’s nickel and dime packages was one of the factors that allowed defensive coordinator Keith Butler to be flexible and creative with his schemes. Pittsburgh cut Barron loose in March when they decided his $5 million contract would be better spent signing impending free agents and the upcoming draft class. It didn’t move the needle much in either direction with the fan base. Many perceived Barron to be an average-at-best pass defender and, as an undersized linebacker, a liability against the run. But Barron had a sneaky-productive season in 2019, if not for the numbers he put up then for the things he allowed the Steelers to do defensively.

As far as the numbers go, Barron was solid. He registered 82 tackles, three sacks, three passes defended, an interception and a fumble recovery while playing nearly 70% of the team’s total defensive snaps. He was decent in man coverage against bigger tight ends and above average against running backs, helping the Steelers improve decidedly against each. His biggest contributions did not necessarily show up in box scores, however, as Barron’s ability to play multiple roles let the Steelers shore up existing weaknesses in coverage while adding speed and complexity to their sub packages. This article examines the myriad ways the Steelers employed Barron and looks at why finding someone who can replicate his versatility may be tricky.

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First, let me state what this article is not. It’s not an analysis of Barron’s strengths and weaknesses. Geoffrey Benedict did a nice job breaking Barron down in that regard back in November. For those interested, you can read his pieces here and here. This article looks at how the Steelers utilized Barron, and the value he provided as a jack-of-all-trades linebacker.

Rather than take bits and pieces of film from games throughout the season, which could suffer from selectivity, I’ve chosen to focus on the first half of the Steelers 17-12 home win over the Rams last November. I picked this game because it was one of the team’s most impressive defensive performances of the season. I’m focusing on just the first half for the sake of brevity. The first half alone will provide a thorough picture of how Barron was utilized overall.

Statistically, the Rams game was one of Barron’s best as a Steeler. He made ten tackles, had a pass defensed and a quarterback pressure while playing 92% of the snaps. The defense yielded just three points (LA scored on defense via a fumble return and a safety), registered four sacks and held the Rams to an abysmal 1-16 on 3rd and 4th down conversions. Barron was integral in shutting out Todd Gurley as a receiver. Gurley caught no balls on four targets and was defended by Barron much of the day.

In the first half, Barron was on the field for 32 of the 36 plays run by the Rams offense. By package, his snaps were allocated as follows:

3-4 personnel (Base): 0/4 snaps

2-4-5 personnel (Nickel): 17/17 snaps

2-3-6 personnel (Dime): 15/15 snaps

When the Steelers lined up in their base 3-4, Vince Williams was on the field at inside backer and Barron was out. Calling the 3-4 the Steelers’ base defense is antiquated at this point given the fact they use it less than 30% of the time. Against the Rams, they used it on 4 of 36 first-half snaps, or roughly as often as they use 21 personnel (two backs and one tight end) on offense. No one would suggest the Steelers are a base 21 offense. But for simplicity’s sake, base, nickel and dime remain convenient labels when discussing the defense.

On the remaining 32 first-half snaps, the Steelers lined up in their nickel (17) or dime (15). Barron was on the field for all 32 plays, occupying a variety of roles.

On LA’s opening possession, the Steelers lined up in nickel. This may have taken LA by surprise as the Rams called time out after their very first play. They countered with heavier personnel, putting a tight end and a fullback on the field. The Steelers went to their base, but after good pressure forced quarterback Jared Goff into an errant throw for a lateral, LA faced 2nd and 19. The Steelers returned to their so-called “sub” packages. Barron was back in the nickel on 2nd down, and after an incompletion, he bumped inside as the lone second-level backer in the dime:

There’s nothing spectacular about this play. LA had 3rd and 19, the Steelers were in a heavy pass defense and the Rams went conservative and ran the ball. The thing worth focusing on isn’t the play, it’s the look the Steelers presented. Check out all of their pre-snap movement. With Barron in the middle, they had a backer capable of covering the back out of the backfield man-to-man, moving laterally to run with or disrupt crossers in zone, sink into the deep hole if the Steelers wanted to employ some version of the Tampa-2, provide pressure as a blitzer, or run to the hook-curl if they wanted to disguise a slot blitz. They could do just about anything they wanted out of this look. Barron’s presence in the Dime gave the Steelers the run support of a linebacker mixed with the coverage and disguise skills of a strong safety.

Later in the first quarter, with the Rams facing a 3rd and 6 from their own 41, they emptied the backfield and put Gurley in the right slot to the boundary. The Steelers, in Dime personnel, countered with this look:

LA tried to get Gurley on a quick out at the sticks but Barron (circled in the photo) covered it well. Goff came off of Gurley to his second read, tight end Gerald Everett crossing the field from the left slot. But Cam Sutton, the sixth defensive back in the package, broke up the pass. Goff’s throw was made more difficult by the fact the Steelers rotated out of their pre-snap, man-under cover-2 look, where the middle of the field was open, to a cover-1 robber by dropping Terrell Edmunds from his left safety spot down to the linebacker level. It was a great disguise, made possible by the athleticism on the field:

On LA’s next series, the Steelers were back in their nickel to counter an 11 personnel set by the Rams. LA threw incomplete on first down and faced a 2nd and 10. Versus this look, Barron was tucked inside the box at the weak-side linebacker away from the tight end, or what the Steelers commonly call the Mack. Here is where Barron was most vulnerable. He is not necessarily small (6’2-230) but as a converted safety he doesn’t have the in-the-box instincts of career linebackers. LA recognized this and ran right at the Steelers, hoping, on this inside zone play, to get their left guard on Barron to create a cut-back lane for the back. But Keith Butler smartly sent Barron on a run blitz into the B-gap. This forced the guard to come off of his double-team on Cam Heyward. Heyward held his ground against the center and Barron’s stunt eliminated any cut-back lane. The play was swallowed up for a short gain, setting up a 3rd and long the Rams would not convert:

In the 2nd quarter, LA showed a new formation with the tight end aligned into the boundary. Now Barron went to the tight end side, in what would ordinarily be the Steelers’ Buck position. The interesting thing about this defensive front was the positioning of Devin Bush (55). Bush was tucked into the boundary as well, putting both the Buck and the Mack to the tight end side while leaving no one at the second level to the open end. The Steelers were inviting the Rams to run to the field, where they rotated Minkah Fitzpatrick down into the box at the snap similar to how they had done with Edmunds in the previous GIF:

The Steelers were again using the speed and athleticism of their personnel to provide the Rams the illusion of a voided area while taking it away once the ball was snapped. LA didn’t take the bait here and ran a draw to Todd Gurley into the boundary, where TJ Watt and Devin Bush combined on a tackle for another short gain. The drive stalled and the Rams again had to punt.

On a subsequent drive, the Steelers positioned Barron in the alley to the field, where he locked on tight end Tyler Higbee while nickel corner Mike Hilton came on an edge blitz from the short side:

A few plays later it was Barron on the blitz, coming from the Mack position in the nickel to draw Gurley to him and allow Watt to beat the right tackle one-on-one for a sack:

Barron was not a great blitzer. He often ran into linemen and failed to “get skinny” by using good technique to reduce the amount of surface area a lineman had when attempting to block him. But the Steelers blitzed Barron eight times in the first half against LA, often to great effect. His speed often required quick reactions from blockers to pick him up, freeing other defenders to go one-on-one or find a seam to the football. The blitzes didn’t result in numbers on the stat sheet for Barron but they did allow the Steelers to be more complicated and productive on defense.

Here’s one more. With the Steelers blitzing so often, it was only a matter of time until LA attempting to exploit their aggressiveness with the screen game. Many of Barron’s blitzes were read-checks, meaning he was reading the back assigned to him in pass protection. If the back stayed in to block, Barron came. If the back released, Barron abandoned the blitz and picked him up. The key to a good screen from a running back is engaging the blitzer just long enough to convince him it’s a genuine pass block before falling off to become a receiver. Gurley tried to do that here but Barron didn’t bite. He started on his stunt, correctly diagnosed Gurley’s intention and disrupted the screen:

So, to recap, in that first half alone we saw Barron line up in the box at both the Buck and Mack linebacker spots; saw him align in the alley in coverage against running backs and tight ends; saw him play the middle of the field as the inside backer in the dime package; saw him blitz from a variety of looks and situations; and saw him used in a number of coverage disguises. His ten tackles for the game were a season-high but often it was how his versatility created opportunities for other defenders that made Barron particularly important. The task of replacing him will not be simple.

How might the Steelers do it, then? Presumably, Devin Bush and Terrell Edmunds could split Barron’s duties. They are both athletic enough to do so and can be employed in a variety of roles. Each of these solutions poses a problem, however. If Bush slides into Barron’s role in the nickel package, who plays beside him at inside backer? Vince Williams is not suited for that role and Ulysses Gilbert, whom the team is rumored to be high on, has no on-the-job experience. Bush could remain the traditional Buck in the nickel with Edmunds becoming the Mack. But that would put a player like Marcus Allen or Jordan Dangerfield at safety in Edmunds’ old role, a scenario I’m not certain the Steelers are comfortable with. Cam Sutton could possibly slide into that role as well, although he is yet to prove he can do so.

In the dime, either Bush stays on the field in Barron’s role and the six defensive backs remain the same, or Edmunds slides in at backer and Dangerfield (presumably) becomes the sixth DB. In either the nickel or the dime, Barron’s absence puts a player on the field, whether it be Gilbert, Allen, Dangerfield, Edmunds at backer or Sutton at safety, who is either a lesser player than Barron or who has limited game reps in that position. Hopefully, the Steelers are comfortable with one of these scenarios heading into the draft.

If not, the notion Michael Beck wrote about a few weeks back may come to fruition. The Steelers will have to draft either a safety or an inside backer with one of their higher picks to fill the void. None of this puts the defense in a bad position, per se, and the unit is likely to remain a dominant one in 2020. But Barron’s loss is a bit more complicated than it may seem. Replacing his versatility is the biggest remaining off-season challenge for the defense.