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What can Brian Flores’ use of safeties mean for the Steelers defenders?

How Flores used his three-headed safety position in 2021, and what it could mean for the Steelers in 2022.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Keith Butler’s retirement and the addition of Brian Flores as inside linebackers’ coach and senior defensive assistant changes the Steelers personnel, and will definitely have an impact on the Steelers defensive scheme. Both Teryl Austin and Mike Tomlin have stated Flores will have a much bigger role than just coaching the linebackers.

To be honest, hiring one of the better defensive minds in the NFL, the architect of the Patriots dismantling of the LA Rams offense in Super Bowl LIII, and limiting his input to coaching the linebackers would be dumb and a waste of talent. Flores is well known for his aggressive and disruptive blitz schemes, and with the Steelers loss of Keith Butler, who orchestrated the Steelers pass rush over their recent historical run of sacking the quarterback, there is a clear opening for someone with that skill set on the staff.

While it makes sense to see Flores as someone who will be more focused on the front seven, he has been working with the secondary. More than that, the Steelers signing both Terrell Edmunds and Damontae Kazee, the Steelers have three players that are multi-year starters at safety, and while the Steelers have not been a team that uses three safeties very often, Brian Flores has used three safeties a lot in his defenses.

Brian Flores and the Miami Dolphins safeties

To better understand the different uses and roles Flores has employed his safeties in I wanted to look at snap data, specifically Pro Football Focus’s snap alignment data. This can help us understand how he has used safeties, and give us an idea of how Flores and the Steelers might be looking to utilize the three safeties they have on the roster.

Here are the snap counts for the four most used safeties for the Miami Dolphins in 2021, and where they were aligned to start each snap.

Jason McCourty was a starter for the Dolphins for the first four games of the 2021 season, his snap count dropped off substantially the next three games then he went on injured reserve. Jevon Holland increased his workload as McCourty played less. So while there are four safeties here, There are really only three main safety roles.

If you look at the total percentage of safety snaps (220.8%), the Dolphins ran three safeties a bit over 1 out of 5 snaps. The Dolphins did run some one safety looks, so it was a bit more than just 20.8%, but not a significant difference. I didn’t go through all the game specific numbers, but the usage wasn’t consistent, and was more based on the opponent and their personnel uses. For example, the Dolphins ran a lot of three safety looks against the Bills and their receiver heavy packages.

The three main safeties snaps split up in interesting balances. First off Flores has a primary free safety, that player is a single high safety specialist, a center fielder that can hold up while the team blitzes. Rookie Jevon Holland played that role most of the season. Eric Rowe and Brandon Jones both played a lot of box safety, but while Eric Rowe played a lot in the slot, Brandon Jones was more likely to be used in deep safety alignments and on the line of scrimmage, frequently working as a blitzer.

Terryl Austin and the Pittsburgh Steelers safeties

Now compare those snap distributions to the Steelers in 2021. The Steelers didn’t use three safeties, but I included Tre Norwood and Myles Killebrew because they are the other leading players by snaps listed as safeties, but they also show the distributions for a dime back and safety who largely plays linebacker.

Norwood shows up heavily in the slot, because as a dime back that is his primary role. He also has substantial snaps at free safety, both as a replacement for Minkah Fitzpatrick when he is out and in some zone alignments, and in the box when teams draw out dime personnel with their personnel package then align in a more power-oriented alignment.

Myles Killebrew played almost exclusively against very heavy sets teams were employing to overtax the Steelers run defense, when he would frequently replace one of the Steelers cornerbacks, leading to his seven snaps at cornerback when the offense then lined up an extra tight end or fullback out wide. Terrell Edmunds 41 snaps at corner were mostly in that same role.

Minkah Fitzpatrick was primarily a deep safety, but almost 20% of the time he was either in the box or in the slot. Terrell Edmunds was primarily in the box, his second most used alignment was in the slot, and deep safety came third. Edmunds also played 45 snaps on the line of scrimmage as an added edge defender.

Comparing usage

There’s one more player that needs to be covered quickly before we look at comparing the safeties and their potential usage in 2022. So I also looked up Damontae Kazee’s snaps by alignment.

As you can see Kazee was used heavily in a free safety role, and that is his specialty. Damontae Kazee is a natural center fielder, a good free safety for any deep zone usage. As Kevin Smith pointed out in his article on the Steelers possibly using three safety sets, Kazee is most likely the best deep zone safety on the team.

If we looked at the snaps from Miami and choose Steelers safeties to plug into the same kind of roles, Damontae Kazee would be a natural fit for the free safety focused role that Jevon Holland played for Brian Flores in Miami.

Terrell Edmunds with his box and slot defense focus would fit best in a role similar to what Eric Rowe filled. Edmunds played more deep safety than Rowe in 2021, but with the addition of Kazee the need to play Edmunds as a deep safety is lessened significantly.

That leaves Minkah Fitzpatrick in the Brandon Jones role, a role that was split between playing in the box, in deep zone and on the line of scrimmage, with some slot coverage thrown in as well. The interesting thing about that usage is how well it fits Minkah Fitzpatrick’s versatile skillset. Moving Fitzpatrick around on defense, and especially allowing him to move around based on what he sees from the offense, without being tied to the role of deepest defender, is where he did the most damage in his first two seasons.

In fact if you look at Fitzpatrick’s first game with the Steelers, his splits by alignment also involved a lot of lining up on the line of scrimmage, where he could blitz or drop into coverage. Here are his numbers from Week 3 of 2019 compared to Brandon Jones’ 2021 season numbers.

The Steelers initial vision for Minkah Fitzpatrick had him playing that role a good bit. That changed by the end of that game, as the Steelers were switching between Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds playing single high safety, and as you can imagine, they learned very quickly that whatever value Fitzpatrick brought close to the line of scrimmage could not offset the drop off from Fitzpatrick to Edmunds in deep zone defense.

I want to be clear again that the Steelers will not be just plugging their safeties into roles carved out for players in Miami. But that doesn’t mean they don’t give us any ideas of how the Steelers may modify their defensive back usage.

Predictions guaranteed to be wrong.

These predictions are not me pretending to know what the Steelers will do, or that I know exactly what their defense will look like in 2022. This is going to be me looking at how Brian Flores used his three safeties in 2021, how the Steelers used their safeties in 2021 and coming up with a model of how I think the Steelers safeties would work in a system much more like the one Brian Flores ran in 2021.

Hopefully it’s helpful to those of you curious about what that kind of mashup could mean for Minkah Fitzpatrick and the Steelers secondary.

Let me start with this, I expect Tre Norwood to compete for the nickel job. That could technically mean the Steelers could be running 4 safeties if they don’t change any player’s listed positions. Norwood was fantastic in the dime role, has been drawing comparisons to Cameron Sutton and his ability to line up anywhere and play well, but Norwood at his age is ahead of Sutton at the same age in his physicality and tackling. This of course comes with a big caveat that Norwood could be a wild card that adds a lot more possibility and complexity to the safety situation if he takes a big step up in his second season. I can’t cover that, so I’m going to treat Norwood and Maulet as fighting over the nickel spot and leave both out of the rest of the calculations.

So here’s my thoughts on snap count distribution for the Steelers leading three safeties and my projected distribution of where those snaps will see them lining up. I’m basing the total snap counts on the Steelers 2021 total snaps because that makes it a lot easier for me.

So here it is, my idea of what we could see from the Steelers safeties in a Brian Flores/Teryl Austin defensive collaboration.

If you look at the totals from the position I think we see more safeties up on the line of scrimmage and more safeties aligning deep. The first because of Brian Flores, the second because I have to believe the run defense isn’t forcing the Steelers to go single-high safety as much as it did last year. I’m not going to ruin my day thinking like that. In return the slot numbers drop, but that’s largely due to me counting Tre Norwood as a safety, when he spent most of his time in the slot as a dime back. If you look only at Edmunds and Fitzpatrick this prediction involves an increase in slot snaps for safeties, even as Terrell Edmunds reduces his snap count in the slot from 2021, which was largely driven by the Steelers sticking with 7 man fronts against 11 personnel because of the run defense.

I see Minkah Fitzpatrick still leading the team in deep safety snaps, but only spending a bit over half his time in that role. I see fewer snaps for Edmunds as Damontae Kazee cuts into his snaps when he comes in largely as a deep cover specialist, with just about 100 snaps in other alignments to mess with the offense. Edmunds in this scenario ends up playing about the same number of snaps he did in 2020, while Damontae Kazee sees a decrease in playing time.