A year ago, Mike Tomlin famously stated that his Pittsburgh Steelers play nickel-based defenses 70-percent of the time. This wasn’t a groundbreaking or controversial statement—anyone with a pair of working eyes and an elementary cognizance of NFL schemes could’ve counted the five defensive backs on the field for the Steelers in 2015 and 2016—but it does point to a noticeable shift in NFL team-building. Namely, Tomlin’s admission proves that defensive schemes are not binary and that even teams like Pittsburgh, who have been and continue to be, by definition, a 3-4 team, are extremely dependent on sub-packages.
This is mainly attributable to the omnipresence of “11 personnel” offenses, in which three receivers, one tight end and one running back join the quarterback and five offensive linemen on the field. The ubiquity of these sets has increased considerably over the past several years, which means that the no. 3 cornerback is more valuable than ever.
The third cornerback is particularly valuable to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who may have to defeat Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan (whose teams have arguably the best 11 personnel schemes in the NFL) to win the seventh Super Bowl in franchise history. The Steelers defense is far from being the best unit in the NFL, but it does have a good starter firmly-entrenched at every position, except, of course, the nickel corner position.
The Steelers have attempted to fix this. They shifted William Gay inside after he struggled as a “starter” last season. Senquez Golson, a second-round pick in 2015, worked inside last offseason before ultimately suffering a season-ending injury. In 2017, the Steelers signed Coty Sensabaugh, formerly of the Titans, Rams and Giants, to a two-year deal and drafted former Tennessee CB Cameron Sutton in the third round of the NFL Draft.
Presumably, Pittsburgh’s cornerback depth chart will not be resolved and unofficially finalized until after the preseason, though all of the aforementioned players have an inside track at securing the all-important no. 3 job. For the sake of brevity and convenience, let’s do a brief rundown of each:
Advantages: Plenty of experience playing in the slot, and has no issues staying on the field
Disadvantages: Was signed by the Rams to be an outside corner in 2016, but was cut after just three games. The reasons for this, as of writing, remain unknown.
Advantages: Was among the best cornerbacks in the NCAA during his time at Ole Miss. Ideal size and skills to assume the no. 3 role.
Disadvantages: Injuries have prevented Golson from playing a single professional snap.
Advantages: Knows the system. Played marginally better after being moved inside last season.
Disadvantages: Turns 33 in January.
Advantages: Easily one of the best zone cornerbacks in the 2017 draft class. Very adept at getting his hands on the ball.
Disadvantages: Needs to improve improve his man coverage skills.
Obviously not very comprehensive, but you get the gist. Whoever emerges as the no. 3 cornerback after training camp and the preseason will immediately become a central scapegoat and, by extension, be a rough game away from relinquishing their spot to a teammate. Maybe this uncertainty could serve as the driving force behind a wire-to-wire performance from Pittsburgh’s eventual no. 3 cornerback.
It remains unlikely that Golson, Sensabaugh, Gay or Sutton actually leads the Steelers to a Super Bowl victory. However, the Steelers probably won’t win a championship without a solid no. 3 corner.