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The 2016 Steelers and the Case of the missing ‘Dime’ (Part Two)

Part 2 of this 3 part series looks at the discontinued use of the dime package by the Steelers in 2016.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome, as we continue our investigation of the 2016 Steelers missing dime defense. For those who may have missed Part 1, you can ready it HERE.

Using snap counts and game film we confirmed that the Steelers implemented a dime package as part of their regular defense through the latter stages of the 2015 season and the playoffs. Through 2 games of the 2016 season, it appeared the Steelers fully intended to do the same. We pick up the story there, as the Steelers traveled to Philadelphia in Week 3.

The snap counts show Robert Golden with only 10 snaps. He injured his hamstring during the Eagles first drive. Golden returned, only to leave the game for good on the Eagles second possession. Sean Davis moved to SS, Will Gay moved to the slot, as Artie Burns took over at RCB.

Needless to say, there was no dime package to see in this game (the Steelers did actually use 6 DB’s on one early play. This was in response to the Eagles using a 4 WR package, however). Also of note in this game is that Sean Davis injured his shoulder. He missed a few snaps, but played most of the game (59 snaps).

Davis’ injury did limit his practice time the following week (Davis missed both Wednesday and Thursday practices). If you’ve followed the Steelers for any length of time recently, then you know that Tomlin doesn’t tend to play young guys when they don’t get their practice time in. Davis did not play on defense vs the Chiefs (he is credited with 1 special teams snap). Robert Golden’s hamstring had him end the week listed as “OUT” on the injury report.

With Golden and Davis not playing, the list of snap counts vs the Chiefs is academic. Jordan Dangerfield started at SS. The Steelers did employ Justin Gilbert for 8 snaps. In each case, he was used to cover Chiefs TE Travis Kelce. In these instances, Dangerfield was removed. The Steelers technically used a nickel package (5 DB’s), albeit with 4 of them being CB’s. Injuries have derailed, for now at least, the Steelers dime package. Would Week 5 bring a return?

Robert Golden would miss this game vs the Jets as well. Sean Davis returned to the lineup, however. What do the snap counts show? Well, there were a few constants in the secondary on this day: Will Gay, Ross Cockrell, and Mike Mitchell played all 58 snaps. Lawrence Timmons did as well. Vince Williams, starting in place of the injured Ryan Shazier, played 51/57. The rest? A mish-mash. Davis played 46/58 snaps, Dangerfield was 45/58. Artie Burns played 13/58, and Al-Hajj Shabazz showed up with 6/58 snaps. The game film should be interesting-

When the Steelers used their nickel package, Davis was in the slot. When they were in their 3-4, Davis was at SS. Except sometimes he wasn’t, when it was Dangerfield. Sometimes in their nickel package, the Steelers brought in Artie Burns. Other times, they used Shabazz. I actually found 3 instances of the Steelers using a dime package. In each case, Will Gay was positioned as the dime backer.

In my short time spent watching game film, this game has to be the most eclectic use of personnel packages I’ve seen from the Steelers. Attempting to decipher exactly who was on the field each play was made even more challenging, as the Steelers “Bumble Bee” throwbacks uniforms made the numbers difficult to see.

I believe the wide array of personnel packages used vs the Jets was a “one off.” Focusing on our search for clues on the dime package, it doesn’t offer much insight.

Week 6 vs the Dolphins saw Robert Golden return to the starting lineup. Sean Davis, however, did not play a single defensive snap. He was not listed on the injury report, and did log 12 snaps on ST. I believe the decision not to play Davis was a coach’s decision based on a change in philosophy. We will see how I came to that conclusion later. For now, know that the snap counts for the Dolphins game don’t indicate any use of a dime defense, at least not to any significant degree.

Lawrence Timmons played all 70 snaps, an episode of on-field vomiting notwithstanding. Vince Williams and Tyler Matakevich combined to play 67/70 snaps in place of Shazier. The 3 missing snaps probably correlate to Justin Gilbert’s 3 snaps. Artie Burns played 49 snaps, in the nickel package, with Gay sliding into the slot. Injuries had been the main cause of Burns seeing high snap counts vs the Eagles and Chiefs. This time it seemed to be by design.

As for our detective work on the dime defense, the trail is getting cold. Will Week 7 vs the Patriots provide any new clues?

Robert Golden was listed as limited in Wednesday’s practice with a foot injury. He practiced fully the rest of the week, but this could be a clue in our dime defense mystery. The snap counts for the Patriots game show Timmons with 54/57, Davis with 3/57. Seems to be a correlation. To the game film-

The Steelers did employ their dime defense on 3 plays (familiar alignment with Golden as the dime backer and Davis at FS). The first 2 came on back-to-back plays at the start of the 3rd quarter. The Patriots faced a 2nd and 20, then a 3rd and 17. The last, and fateful one, came on the Patriots next drive. On a 3rd and 7, Tom Brady hit Rob Gronkowski up the seam for a 36 yard TD with Robert Golden trying in vain to defend.

We head into the bye week with a still unsolved mystery. The Steelers dime package had seemingly becoming a vital piece of their defensive package late in 2015. New faces in the secondary notwithstanding, the dime appeared ready to take on an even more prominent role after just 2 weeks of the 2016 season. Injuries were surely the cause of its disappearance for a short time. But is a change in philosophy and perhaps poor results threatening to prevent it from resurfacing for good?

The Steelers had their bye week following the Patriots game. A week off would provide time to heal some bumps and bruises. It might also give the Steelers coach’s an opportunity to tweak some things. Next up would be the Ravens. What do the snap counts tell us?

Artie Burns made his first start, playing all 70 snaps at CB. Will Gay played 38 snaps at the slot CB. Robert Golden played 43/70, Sean Davis played 27/70. All of Davis’ snaps came at SS. He rotated with Robert Golden. Timmons played 67/70 snaps, with Vince Williams getting the remaining 3 snaps at LB.

No evidence here of the Steelers using a dime package. It appears as though they are concentrating on giving Sean Davis more snaps at SS. The dime may be dead.

The Cowboys are up next. The snap counts show Golden with 29/65, Davis with 43/65, as the Steelers rotated SS’s, with Davis seeing an increase in snaps. Both Timmons and Shazier played all 65 snaps. The 7 “extra snaps” for Davis came in some short yardage situations where the Steelers used 3 safeties, but removed a CB. Hence, no dime package.

This is essentially the end of our search for use of the dime package by the Steelers in 2016. The following week vs the Browns, Sean Davis played every snap at SS, taking over the spot full-time. Robert Golden’s only snaps from here on out would come in spots when Mike Mitchell had to leave the field for a few plays after getting dinged up (Golden did play 3 snaps in a dime package in Week 14 vs the Bills. All 3, however, came at the end of the game with the Steelers ahead, 27-13. Golden was positioned in the deep middle, a true “prevent” defense). For those that would point to Golden’s appearance in the AFC Championship Game vs the Patriots, he only played 4 snaps. Each one came with the Steelers matching the Patriots 4 WR package. Lawrence Timmons would play 100% of the defensive snaps (missing 1 or 2 in a couple games) for the rest of the season.

We now know the Steelers discontinued the use of their dime package as the 2016 wore on. Let’s go back to some key points to see if we can identify why it was discontinued.

Injuries to Robert Golden and Sean Davis effectively eliminated use of the dime package in weeks 3-5. The week 6 game against the Dolphins brought Golden’s return to the lineup. Sean Davis was not listed on the injury report. He did not play any defensive snaps, however.

Davis’ play as the slot CB was “less than desirable,” to say the least. In the Dolphins game, the Steelers decided to play Will Gay in the slot, bringing Artie Burns on the field in nickel package, with Gay sliding inside. Davis did not play at SS. My guess is that Davis hadn’t received much practice time at SS, as his primary role had been as slot CB.

That still doesn’t explain the Steelers reluctance to use Davis as part of a dime package. They did so in Week 1 vs the Redskins, and extensively in Week 2 vs the Bengals (with Davis as the SS in both games). I don’t think Sean Davis is the reason the dime wasn’t used.

Robert Golden was listed on the Week 6 injury report leading up to the Dolphins game with his hamstring injury. Although Golden practiced fully during the week, perhaps his hamstring was still not 100%. As a dime backer, Golden would likely be put in more situations that called for change of direction, sudden starts and stops, than he would at SS. Perhaps this led to the decision not to use the dime package.

I mentioned earlier that Golden was listed on the injury report prior to the Patriots game with a foot injury. Again, this could limit him in his role as dime backer. The TD allowed by Golden to Gronkowski may have done more to eradicate the Steelers use of the dime package the rest of the 2016 season.

Now, it’s not like Golden was the first defender to get beat by Gronk, and he certainly won’t be the last. Perhaps it illustrated the potential downside to putting Robert Golden in those type of situations. Maybe it was due to injury. Snap counts do not tell the whole story here, as Golden was replaced by Sean Davis as the starting SS in the games following the bye week. Robert Golden did miss the regular season finale vs the Browns with what was listed as an ankle injury. He also was listed as questionable on the injury report with an ankle for the WC playoff game vs the Dolphins and did not get any snaps. Could Robert Golden’s foot/ankle been less than 100% for games 9-15? Possibly, but there’s no way to know for sure.

Another possible reason for the disappearance of the dime package may have been the play of Lawrence Timmons. During the games when Golden was injured, with no dime package implemented, Timmons remained on the field in passing situations. And he played well. In 2015, Timmons was battling a turf toe injury, which likely limited his effectiveness in pass coverage. Although Steelers fans will lament the images of Timmons being matched up with WR’s like Julian Edelman, he did play well overall in coverage in 2016 as compared to 2015. I think the coaches felt more comfortable having Timmons on the field than a perhaps-less-than-100% Robert Golden.

Let’s look at a few plays from 2016 with Timmons in situations where use of a dime package was previously considered (3rd and long):

On this 3rd and 6 play vs the Colts, Timmons gets a deep drop to help break up the pass attempt to Dwayne Allen.

On this 3rd and 6 play vs the Ravens, Timmons sticks close to Steve Smith on his stutter-step route, stopping him short of a 1st down.

On this 3rd and 14 play vs the Bengals, Timmons tosses Rex Burkhead aside to pressure Andy Dalton into an incompletion.

I want to stress this point. If the coaches felt the defense had a better chance of success with Lawrence Timmons on the field than it did with Robert Golden, then why put a dime package out there? I am reminded of something Bill Cowher during an instructional video with Pat Kirwan of Real Football Network. Bill and Pat were discussing the similarities between the 4-3 and 3-4 fronts. Pat asked Bill which one he preferred. Bill answered, “Whichever one gets your best players on the field.”

There you have it. I feel the disappearance of the dime package from the 2016 Steelers defense was the result of three primary causes

-injuries in the early portion of the season

-moving parts in a young secondary, including two rookies

-a recognition of which players gave the best chance for success

Now that we’ve wrapped up this mystery, and closed the Case of the Missing Dime, I’d like to look forward. Although circumstances led to the Steelers eschewing the dime package in 2016, I believe we saw enough evidence to determine it is something they want to employ. I hope you’ll join me in Part 3 as we look at some possibilities for the Steelers dime package in 2017