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Steelers largely staying in defensive base packages through two games

The Steelers' starters have barely left the field through two games, and fears about the team's nickel package in the preseason seem to have been confirmed by their lack of use of sub-packages. How well that plan is working is up for some debate.

Rob Carr

Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell reportedly held back from speaking after the Steelers' 26-6 loss to Baltimore regarding the first of two personal-foul penalties he received in the game. He delivered a very borderline hit on a Ravens receiver in the end zone, jarring the ball loose - something that used to be a standard part of the job for any safety.

Mitchell didn't need to speak about it, his reaction on the field was enough to let everyone in attendance know he didn't agree. From a much quieter perspective, Mitchell was taken out of the game, likely to calm him down, but that was one of only five snaps he's missed this season. Of the 135 snaps the Steelers' defense has taken, according to NFL Game Statistics Information System, the four starters have played in pretty much all of them, save a spot like Mitchell's here and there.

It's one thing to wonder what exactly the expectations are for the Steelers' defensive backs. All four of the starters, Mitchell, Troy Polamalu (personal foul), Cortez Allen (personal foul) and Ike Taylor (holding but was declined), were penalized in the loss and the Ravens methodically passed at will. It's another question completely why the team kept 11 defensive backs after their roster cuts, if even William Gay - arguably the team's best defensive back last season - is only playing 23 percent of their snaps.

The first snap Shamarko Thomas takes on defense in the Steelers' next game will be his first of the season. Forget Will Allen, Antwon Blake or Robert Golden (although Blake Golden paired up for one of the highlights of the year, completing a 20-yard pass on a fake punt against Cleveland) largely showing the team's desire to stay in their base and bigger packages.

What exactly is it affording them, though? Logic would have suggested they wouldn't have kept so many defensive backs if they weren't going to be useful in some manner - and Gay, Thomas, Blake, Golden and Allen are active on special teams. But while Gay is logging about as many snaps as rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt is (still a reasonable amount for a rookie), the Steelers aren't stopping the run out of their base packages any better than they're stopping the pass, because teams are throwing more aggressively on the Steelers' linebackers - Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons in particular.

Another point to note is the general lack of time being given to Sean Spence. Like the aforementioned players, he's being used sparingly but might be worth getting a bump in playing time if for no other reason than to provide an added dose of support on passing downs.

The season is still young and playing two games in five days may skew things a bit, but how Pittsburgh handles their rotation in the secondary against Carolina will be a more telling component of how they're going to play this season. There were indications of a struggling nickel package during the preseason, and it appears the Steelers agreed, having all but ditched this package in favor of utilizing their linebackers more in coverage. That battle was lost against Baltimore and it'll be a wonder if they don't dig back into the "big" nickel packages now with another safety to help cover tight ends against the Panthers.