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

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Part 3 of this 3 part series looks at the potential use of the dime package by the Steelers in 2017.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

This is the 3rd and final part of our series on the Steelers dime defense. If you missed either of the previous installments, you can catch up on them here:

Part 1

Part 2

In our first piece, we saw how the Steelers implemented the dime defense during the latter stages of 2015, and early in 2016. In part two, we determined what led to the disappearance of the dime defense over the course of the 2016 season. Now, we will look at some of the key players, should the Steelers use a dime package in 2017.

First, however, let’s review why a dime package is used. As opposed to a nickel package, the dime is not primarily an attempt to “match up” defensive personnel to the offensive personnel. In the nickel package, a “bigger/slower” defensive player (DL or LB) is replaced by a smaller/quicker DB. This is usually done when the offense deploys a 3 WR set. The extra DB is used to match the 3rd WR brought in by the offense.

The dime defense, as used by the Steelers, was not implemented, primarily, in response to a change in offensive personnel. The dime’s use was predicated on down and distance. To illustrate, let’s look at the Steelers 2016 Week 2 game vs the Bengals:

You can see the Bengals are in 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE) with 3 WR’s. Under normal circumstances, the Steelers would counter this personnel grouping with their nickel package (3 CB’s matches up with 3 WR’s). This play occurred in a 3rd and 7 situation, however. Based on the down and distance, the Steelers countered with their dime package.

I stress this point because it coincides with a philosophy of Bill Cowher’s that I quoted in the second part of our series: “Whichever gets your best players on the field.”

The Steelers used the dime package late in 2015 and early in 2016. They had Robert Golden play in place of Lawrence Timmons because they felt it put their best players on the field in obvious passing situations. The Steelers kept Lawrence Timmons on the field in these same situations over the remainder of the 2016 season. Obviously, the coaches felt that Timmons gave them a better chance of success that Golden.

Lets look at the 2017 Steelers defense with that philosophy in mind.

Lawrence Timmons is no longer a member of the Steelers, having left via free agency. Vince Williams is the presumptive starter at Buck LB (Timmons position). Therefore, the question becomes, “Will the Steelers replace Williams in passing situations, as they did Timmons?” If the Steelers feel that leaving Vince out there “gets their best players on the field,” they will not replace him with a safety, thereby eliminating use of the dime package. As stated, however, it is my belief that the Steelers intend to implement the dime package. So we will look at the potential candidates for the dime backer position.

Before we do that, let’s briefly outline what physical traits and attributes that make up an ideal “dime backer.”

This is where the term “hybrid,” which has come into vogue over the past several years, enters the picture. Since the dime backer typically plays close to the LOS, taking the place of a LB, they should be bigger than your average safety. Since the dime backer is playing in mostly passing situations, they should have coverage skills that are better than your typical LB. ILB’s typically range between 240-255 or more pounds. Safeties are generally in the 200-215 pound range. Understanding that these are ballpark numbers, the “ideal” dime backer would weigh in the 220-230 pound range.

Height would also seem to be an important attribute for the dime backer. Since they are typically aligned in the middle of the defense, the dime backer is apt to be tasked with covering TE’s and bigger receivers.

A prime example of the “ideal” dime backer would be UConn safety Obi Melifonwu (drafted by the Raiders in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft). Obi is listed at 6’4”, 224 pounds. Jack Lambert was listed at 6’4”, 220 pounds. Think about that for a minute. You have a player as big as Lambert who can cover like a safety. I realize that NFL players have become bigger and faster over the past 40 years. That is still a frightening thought.

Okay, back to the Steelers likely candidates for their dime backer position. I see 4 players that would be considered. Let’s take a look at each, weighing their pros and cons:

Robert Golden (5’11,” 202 pounds)-right away we see that Golden doesn’t possess what you’d consider the “ideal size” for the dime backer position. None of the Steelers DB’s (or LB’s) fit the bill in that regard. Keeping in mind that listed weights of players are not updated regularly doesn’t appreciably alter that. For example, if Robert Golden were to gain weight, get up to 220+ pounds, that wouldn’t necessarily make him a better “fit” for the dime backer role. His body frame is what it is. Carrying that much extra weight would most assuredly hinder his movement. Since the Steelers primarily used the dime package in obvious passing situations, smaller size as it relates to being a liability vs the run, is more negligible.

Pros:

-has played the position previously. By my rough estimate, Golden logged 114+ snaps in the dime package from Week 14 of 2015 through the 2016 season.

-coaches familiarity with Golden in the position. They know what he can and can’t do. No “surprises” there.

-if Golden was nursing injuries during 2016 (he did miss 3 games and was listed on the injury report on several occasions), he presumably would be fully healthy in 2017

Cons:

-small for the position. This showed up in dramatic fashion in the match up with Gronkowski in Week 7. Again, Gronk is a nightmare for anyone to cover. Still, Golden’s relatively short stature would manifest itself vs any bigger receiver

-”lost” his job over the course of the 2016 season. Whether it was due to injuries, substandard play, or the improved play of Lawrence Timmons, the coaches decided it was better to NOT use Golden in the dime package

Sean Davis (6’1,” 201 pounds)-wouldn’t have considered Davis in 2016. He already had an enormous amount to learn in playing the slot, as well as SS.

Pros:

-a bit taller than Golden, better match up size wise with TE’s/bigger WR’s

-most impressive athlete among the Steelers DB’s. Davis’ time in the 3-cone drill and short shuttle (which measure change of direction) were bested by only 2 cb’s in this year’s combine. Playing close to the LOS to give a “LB look,” then quickly turn and cover is an element that makes the dime package much more potent

-physical presence vs the run. This was increasingly evident as the 2016 season wore on. Davis showed an ever-growing comfort playing in the box, and made some impressive run stops

Cons:

-another “new” position for Davis to learn

-with Davis as the dime backer, who plays SS? Davis is clearly the best player for the Steelers at SS. Whomever would be the choice to play there would bring a drop off in play. Is the potential advantage gained with Davis at dime backer worth more than the loss of him not playing SS?

-continuity at the safety position. This is related to the previous issue, but slightly different. Regardless of the quality of the player at SS, Mike Mitchell would have to communicate with someone “new” on the back end. Mitchell and Davis developed a strong rapport after Davis took over the starting SS spot. Davis as dime backer would interrupt that rapport.

William Gay (5’ 10”, 187 pounds)-probably the least likely candidate for the dime backer position.

Pros:

-has played the position before, albeit only a handful of snaps

-knowledge of the defense. Gay has the most experience, by far, of any Steelers DB. Knowing the other players’ responsibilities, and where your help is, can play a significant role in the success of a defense

Cons:

-extremely small for the position, in terms of both height and weight

-at 32 years old, Gay is not as quick/fast as he once was, and he was never noted for either

Daimion Stafford (6’0,” 219 pounds)-the most intriguing of the candidates, and the one we will spend the most time on. I was not familiar with Stafford when news broke that the Steelers signed the former Titans safety on May 30th. An article by Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette on Stafford immediately caught my attention. (You can read the full article here: http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/steelers/2017/05/30/Steelers-sign-safety-Daimion-Stafford-Tennessee-Titans/stories/201705310106)

This quote from Stafford “I played a lot of dime last year in [Dick] LeBeau‘s defense,” jumped off the page. Having already begun work on the “Missing Dime” series, an addition of a potential new candidate couldn’t have come at a better time. In order to get a feel for how much was “a lot of dime,” I took a look at Stafford from 2016.

Starting with snap counts, we see that Stafford played 614 defensive snaps in 2016 (over 56%). He played in 15 games (missing one with an injury), with 6 starts at safety. That doesn’t tell us anything about his time in the dime package, however. I charted 6 games (Weeks 1, 4, 7, 10, 14, 17) to get an idea of Stafford’s use there.

By my count, Daimion Stafford played 54 snaps as a dime backer in those 6 games. That number was increased by his 23 dime snaps vs Green Bay in Week 10. The Packers used a lot of 4 WR sets, which the Titans countered by using Stafford as a dime backer. The breakdown of snaps by game was 10, 7, 2, 23, 3, 9.

The Titans used a variety of looks with their safeties. Kevin Byard and Da’Norris Searcy were used as dime backers as well. This was not the job of Stafford alone. The scope of my charting was not to scout the Titans defense, nor to even evaluate Stafford’s play in the dime. It was simply to get an idea of how many snaps Stafford played in the dime package. Having done so, I think it’s safe to say that Daimion Stafford is comfortable playing as a dime backer.

Let’s look at some plays to illustrate Stafford playing the dime backer role:

This play from Week 4 vs the Texans has Stafford carrying TE Ryan Griffin down the seam.

This play from Week 10 vs the Packers has Stafford covering WR Jordy Nelson.

Finally, this play from Week 17 vs the Texans has Stafford blitzing off the edge (and getting the sack).

Even I, one of the biggest proponents of the dime package, had to temper my enthusiasm over Stafford. Think about it. Stafford wasn’t signed during the “first wave” of free agency. Nor the second. Is there even such thing as the “third wave?” With Daimion Stafford being signed as the Steelers were halfway through their OTA’s, there’s an argument to be made that he is almost an afterthought. Does this sound like a player you insert into a key role on your defense? A recent article, however, swayed me back toward the side of “enthusiastic.”

Jim Wexell wrote a piece for Steel City Insider following the last day of OTA’s, June 8th. (You can read the full article here:). In it, Wexell wrote “The team's most recent free-agent signing, 218-pound safety Daimion Stafford, was used for the first time this spring as the third safety next to linebacker Ryan Shazier on pass downs.

Stafford confirmed he took those reps with the first team Thursday, and said it caught him by surprise.

"They just called my name and I went in," he said.”

Now, Stafford hasn’t even made the 53-man roster yet. He’ll likely battle Jordan Dangerfield for a spot, or one of the CB’s should the Steelers decide to keep 5 safeties on the roster. Getting snaps as a “dime backer” with the 1st team defense clearly shows the coaches have interest, however.

Pros:

-bigger frame helps vs TE’s and bigger WR’s, as well as defending the run

-experience as a dime backer. We saw a snapshot of Stafford’s snaps in the dime in 2016. Extrapolating those over his 15 games approximates 135 snaps. Wexell’s article states that “Stafford played the "dime linebacker" position with the Tennessee Titans during parts of the last four seasons. Allowing for even minimal snaps from 2013-2015, it seems likely that Stafford has more experience as a dime backer than Robert Golden

-experience in Dick Lebeau’s defense. DC Keith Butler has kept quite a bit of Lebeau’s schemes, making the learning curve of a “new defense” for Stafford, minimal

Cons:

-questionable coverage ability. Stafford’s draft profile lists “Thick build hinders his flexibility and agility to stay with receivers downfield. Can be a step late getting to the sideline from the hash or covering deep outs. Inconsistent finding the ball in the air, will overrun or come up short on deep balls,” among his weaknesses.

His coverage grades by PFF from 2014-2016: 49.7, 65.0, and 65.6.

Stafford also tested below average athletically at the combine.

There you have my list of likely candidates to man the dime backer position for the Steelers in 2017. It wasn’t necessarily my intention to choose which one I thought would be the choice of the Steelers coaches. I simply wanted to present them for discussion. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say Robert Golden and Daimion Stafford are the front runners. I can envision the Steelers utilizing both players in the dime, depending on the situation and opponent match ups.

I hope you enjoyed each of our 3 part series on the Steelers dime package as much as I enjoyed researching them. I’ll be anxiously awaiting any developments on this front over the course of training camp. Ultimately, how the dime is used and who plays there will be revealed during the regular season. Until then, all we can do is wait...