This is the third installment of the “Game Plan” series I’m working on through the reasonably quiet part of the calendar between the draft and training camp. To read the most recent article in the series, see the link below.
Coaches at every level of football grapple with a fundamental question when it comes to devising their schemes: Is it better to build around the abilities of the players on hand, or to find players to fit into a predetermined system?
A case can be made for doing it both ways. Many coaches are system-oriented, and look for players who fit well into theirs. A great example is the Los Angeles Rams, where Todd McVay’s wide zone, play-action attack took off with Matthew Stafford at quarterback. The offense had become sluggish under Stafford’s predecessor, Jared Goff. Goff was largely a dink-and-dunk passer, which didn’t mesh with McVay’s aggressive mindset. So, he traded for Stafford, who was more adept at attacking down the field. The move paid huge dividends. After just one season with Stafford, the Rams hoisted their second “sticky Lombardi.”
Then there are the teams who marry their scheme to their personnel. This is what the Steelers did for years with Ben Roethlisberger. Once Roethlisberger established himself as an elite passer, Pittsburgh’s offense was less about its coordinator and more about its quarterback. Bruce Arians, Todd Haley and Randy Fichtner all molded their schemes to what Roethlisberger preferred and did best. The results, for a time, were impressive. From 2014-2018, Pittsburgh finished seventh or best in total offense each year, with a trio of Top 3 finishes in that span.
Current coordinator Matt Canada is more like McVay than his predecessors in Pittsburgh. He has a system he prefers. Like McVay with Goff, Canada struggled to run that system with Roethlisberger taking snaps. Roethlisberger retired, and Pittsburgh quickly revamped its offense with players they believe will better compliment Canada. Time will tell whether this proves to be wise. There’s no question, though, that on the offensive side of the ball, the Steelers are building around a system rather than adapting to the personnel on hand.
On defense, Pittsburgh has been system-based since the early 1980s, when they adopted the 3-4 as their base. For decades, they have invested in players who fit that scheme. They still base out of the 3-4, but more in name these days than in practice. More commonly, the Steelers are in some sort of sub package, whether it’s 2-4-5 nickel, 2-3-6 dime, or something else. These sub packages are responses to changes in the way the game is now played on offense, and have come to define defense in Pittsburgh as much as the 3-4.
How the Steelers plan to structure their defense this season, and the degree to which it will be personnel-driven, scheme-driven, or some combination of the two, is intriguing. There have been significant coaching changes since January. Coordinator Keith Butler retired, defensive assistant Teryl Austin was elevated to coordinator and former Miami head coach Brian Flores was added to the staff. It’s logical to expect some aspects of Butler’s system to remain. It’s also likely Austin will put his own stamp on things, and Flores will have input as well. Then there’s head coach Mike Tomlin, who called the defense on game day while Butler was coordinator. That’s a lot of cooks in the defensive kitchen. It’s hard to know what they’ll produce, or how their collaboration will fare. But, by examining their personnel moves this off-season, there are clues.
For starters, the Steelers seem determined to be versatile. We can conclude this because they’ve acquired players who can execute a variety of roles. Myles Jack, for example, can play both the Mack and the Buck linebacker positions and has also taken reps on the edge. Jack can fit almost any package the Steelers devise. Genard Avery is best as an edge player but has experience playing inside, too. He can move around, if necessary. Ditto for 3rd Round pick DeMarvin Leal, Pittsburgh’s top selection on defense in the recent draft. Leal is versatile enough to play the 3-tech, 5-tech or move to the nose as a situational pass rusher.
The most interesting addition on defense, however, may be safety Demontae Kazee. Pittsburgh signed Kazee to a one-year contract shortly after re-signing fellow safety Terrell Edmunds. Signing Kazee after Edmunds is curious. Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick will be the starters, which would seem to relegate Kazee to a depth role. But Kazee was a starter the last four seasons in Atlanta and Dallas, where he played over 75% of the defensive snaps. Neither Edmunds nor Fitzpatrick have injury histories — they have missed just two games between them in eight combined seasons — so it seems odd that Kazee would sign in Pittsburgh to sit behind two veterans who rarely leave the field.
Unless, of course, the Steelers don’t plan to sit him that much. They could play him in the slot in their nickel and dime packages, where he has some experience. This is not his forte, however. Kazee is a true deep safety whose strength is as a ball-hawk on the back end. This leads me to believe the Steelers may consider playing Kazee, Edmunds and Fitzpatrick together in a three-safety configuration that departs from their traditional sub-packages.
The impetus for such a package stems from the fact Kazee, Fitzpatrick and Edmunds all have different strengths. Kazee’s back-end skills are underscored by his 12 interceptions since 2018, which ranks 5th among NFL safeties over that time. Kazee can play deep half in cover-2, deep middle in cover-3 and single-high in man-free. In this sense, he’s a more natural free safety than anyone on the roster.
Fitzpatrick can do a bit of everything. His 13 interceptions since 2018 rank just ahead of Kazee. But Fitzpatrick can play down low, too, and is especially good as a robber where he drops from a two-high alignment to disrupt routes at the linebacker level. Fitzpatrick has some Troy Polamalu in his game, in the sense he can be moved around to allow a coordinator to get creative with design.
Edmunds is the most physical of the three and does his best work in the box. He is solid in coverage against tight ends and his tackling has improved, making him a reliable run defender. He can be disruptive near the line of scrimmage, too, using his aggressive mindset to make plays:
Edmunds struggles in deep coverage, but in a package with Fitzpatrick and Kazee, that weakness could be mitigated. Putting all three on the field together would allow each to work to his particular strength.
A package like this would be new to Pittsburgh, but not new in general. Three-safety defenses have slowly been working their way into NFL playbooks. They are the latest moves by defensive coordinators in the never-ending chess match against their offensive counterparts. When offenses started ditching their fullbacks for an extra receiver in the early 2000s, defenses responded with nickel packages that utilized an additional defensive back. Offenses countered that move by installing athletic tight ends as slot players, giving them favorable matchups against those smaller nickel defenders. Now, in an effort to defend the Travis Kelce’s and, yes, Pat Freiermuth’s of the league, defenses are countering back. One way they’re doing so is by playing three safeties.
There are several benefits of a three-safety package in Pittsburgh. For starters, it would allow the Steelers to get their best personnel on the field. When Pittsburgh goes to their traditional 2-4-5 nickel, Cam Sutton or Arthur Maulet are the slot corners while Edmunds and Fitzpatrick are at safety. In the three-safety look, Edmunds would man the alley with Kazee and Fitzpatrick on the back end. Kazee is a better two-high defender than Edmunds, while Edmunds is a better run defender than any slot corner on the roster. Against teams who want to get the Steelers into their nickel package so they can run the football, like Cincinnati does below, this is a nice solution:
Edmunds also adds the benefit of being a physical pass defender against tight ends. He has good closing speed to the ball and can withstand the contact tight ends use to create separation. Playing Edmunds in the box is a nice way for the Steelers to answer teams who want to use their athletic tight ends on underneath routes to move the chains.
A three-safety package would also allow the Steelers to get creative with their coverage disguises. They would have tremendous versatility in terms of who plays underneath and who plays deep. For example, they could roll Fitzpatrick into the box from a two-high structure while dropping their corners to play cover-3, like we see them do here:
The differences between this defense, which Pittsburgh used against Josh Allen and the Bills in last season’s opener, and one that features three safeties are subtle but important. Edmunds, who is the deep safety to the bottom of the screen in this clip, would be in the box instead, where he is best. Kazee would be the one rotating out of cover-2 to play the deep middle third. This would put Edmunds and Kazee in their positions of strength while freeing Fitzpatrick to do Polamalu-like things.
Fears that Edmunds will be exploited in coverage could be alleviated by coverage checks. The Steelers might not want to be in man-to-man, or in cover-4, if it means Edmunds will have to carry a quick receiver up the seam. There may be an occasional situation, like if a blitz is called, where they’ll have to live with that. Often, though, they’ll be able to check the coverage to get out of a bad match-up. If Buffalo shifted to maneuver Stefon Diggs onto Edmunds, for example, the Steelers could use a “safe” check, which would put them in something generic like cover-3, to make the coverage more sound.
The Steelers have thought outside the box like this before. In 2020, for example, they ran a 3-5-3 configuration against Baltimore to get bigger personnel on the field to defend the run. They used it against the Ravens’ 12 and 21 packages, inserting a fifth backer and removing a corner:
With just one corner on the field, a package like this could only be used against heavier looks from an offense. By contrast, the three-safety package is more versatile and would only be vulnerable to 10 or 20 groupings that spread the field with speed.
So, as for that fundamental question I posed at the top of the article, will the Steelers build their defense around the personnel on hand or around a preferred scheme? Only the minds in their coaching room truly know. But, with the talent they’ve acquired at safety, putting together a package that includes Fitzpatrick, Edmunds and Kazee would get their best talent on the field in a scheme that maximizes their abilities. That makes it something the coaches should consider.