Working to project what the Steelers' defense will look like in 2014 is a matter of reconstruction. Judging by what we know of certain transactions and draft picks, we can make a reasonable assumption they'll be used in ways we're familiar with from past examples.
Defending the run is the staple of this team's philosophy, and regardless of who's healthy and who's under contract, they're going to use many of the same packages in order to stop it.
The challenge is matching the evolution taking place on offense with the right kind of personnel. Teams are running no-huddle far more often than in the past, and that centers around the quarterback's ability to determine whether the personnel on the other side of the line is equipped to handle a run or a pass.
Here's an example of the Steelers' efforts to mix nickel personnel with an emphasis on run defense.
The injury to Steelers linebacker Larry Foote caused something of a ripple effect through the Steelers' defense. The presence of Vince Williams encouraged teams to pass the ball more against the Steelers, which wasn't ideal, but at the same time, it may have been the step backward the Steelers needed schematically to take two steps forward in the future.
This alignment is sometimes misinterpreted as the Steelers' "Big Nickel" package. We referred to it as the Polamalu Nickel, which is to say the team has, in terms of players, four linebackers and five defensive backs to go along with defensive linemen Brett Keisel and Cameron Heyward. Troy Polamalu is playing an inside linebacker position next to Lawrence Timmons and Shamarko Thomas is at the line more or less as a run-defending outside linebacker.
Thomas is behind Jason Worilds, who's playing over the inside shoulder of the tight end, and LaMarr Woodley is standing up on the opposite side of the line wide of the tackle.
The Steelers' sub packages are utilizing more two-man defensive lines by moving their personnel up a spot on the field; Worilds as a stand-up defensive end, Thomas in the outside linebacker spot, Polamalu at the inside linebacker spot. We're likely to see this concept again in 2014, but this time, the Steelers will be able to utilize Polamalu in Thomas's spot, Stephon Tuitt or Cam Thomas in Keisel's spot and Ryan Shazier in Polamalu's spot.
They have defenders in aggressive run-defensive positions but they're equipped athletically to peel off into pass coverage. Players like Thomas, and Shazier in 2014, are key to this kind of strategy. Watch Thomas fire off the snap and explode into the outside shoulder of the tight end. Dallas Clark isn't prepared for that explosion and can't do anything but allow Thomas to turn him away from the play. In doing that, he tosses Clark out of the way and is in prime position to make the tackle.
At the same time, Polamalu recognizes the play and beats the blocker to the hole, putting himself between the block and the ball carrier.
This is a well-defended play, but let's add in future expansion to this package.
The Steelers can, on run downs most likely, keep Thomas on the field in that nickel role and rely on the speed of free safety Mike Mitchell to provide help. Between the safeties, Mitchell and Polamalu, the corner and slot defensive backs, Thomas, Cortez Allen and/or Ike Taylor, and the inside linebackers, Shazier and Lawrence Timmons, there's a huge amount of speed on the field.
The Steelers sub packages are much more athletic and along with the increased amount strength they'll get from a deeper defensive line, the no-huddle offenses they'll see this season won't have as much opportunity to catch the Steelers in bad match-ups from an athletic standpoint.
The key to this particular look will be Thomas's continued development in coverage. While few are going to be able to cover a beast like New England's Rob Gronkowski up and down the field, Thomas will have to make up for his lack of height with positioning. The best pass defense is to not draw a throw. Teams will look to throw more when they see Thomas on the field, but if he's able to elevate that area of his game, we could see the Steelers able to play five different players through three secondary positions, all in an effort to maximize their versatility against any offense they face.