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Four downs: Are Steelers’ DB-heavy schemes that unusual? |

Four downs: Are Steelers’ DB-heavy schemes that unusual?

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers Terrell Edmunds eyes Titans running back for a tackle Saturday Aug. 25, 2018 at Heinz Field.

1. Safeties dance

Three safeties on the field? Packages with seven defensive backs? Cornerbacks playing safety? Safeties playing hybrid linebacker?

Who knows what DB-heavy schemes the Pittsburgh Steelers will show in their season opener Sunday. Players and coaches are characteristically tight-lipped, but clues emerged throughout training camp of expected changes in personnel and scheme. Most involve extra defensive backs.

But a look at last season’s Steelers reveals loading up in the secondary isn’t new to the team. According to an analysis by, only six teams in the NFL used six or more defensive backs more often than the Steelers, who did it on 24 percent of their snaps.

The Steelers in the modern NFL and post-Dick LeBeau era have been evolving into a more multiple defense. Last season, Football Outsiders notes they joined the Texans and Ravens as the only teams that did not use any personnel package on more than 40 percent of its defensive snaps.

While nickel (five DBs) is the modern NFL’s bread-and-butter defense, the Steelers employed the nickel less than all but six teams. But they did use “base” defense (front seven with four in the secondary) the sixth most of any team (38 percent, with a league average of 33 percent).

2. Which ‘B’ is for best?

It’s almost as difficult to judge the value of an NFL contract as it is to evaluate the value of a player. But let’s use some imperfect metrics to try in an effort to see if Le’Veon Bell’s contract demands are appropriate in comparison to the Steelers’ other “Killer B’s” on offense.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll use average annual value of the contract to determine its value, and we’ll use’s “approximate value” to determine which players are most valuable. Since 2014 (when Bell emerged as a star), Bell has accumulated 52 “AV.” Roethlisberger has 53 “AV” and Brown 60.

Roethlisberger averages $21.85 million per year, Brown $17 million — Bell’s target — and Bell’s franchise tag for 2018 would pay him $14.54 million.

3. Browns hope?

Cleveland has lost 34 of its past 35 games, including going 1-31 the past two seasons under Hue Jackson — the worst two-season stretch in NFL history. But it was coming out of their two worst two-season stretches that the Steelers had milestone seasons.

The Steelers went 3-16-3 over 1940-41. They would go on to have the franchise’s first winning season (7-4) in 1942. And out of the 3-24-1 Steelers of 1968-69 emerged the Super Steelers dynasty of the 1970s.

The Browns can only hope.

4. Looking ahead

The 2018 season hasn’t started. So, of course, it’s time to look ahead to 2019, right? There are 15 Steelers set to become unrestricted free agents, among them are Bell, Ramon Foster, Jesse James, Anthony Chickillo and Jordan Berry. Four are restricted free agents, including Xavier Grimble and B.J. Finney. But of more intrigue and notability, the prospective class of Steelers 2020 free agents is a bounty — and this is important because it would be next summer that these players would negotiate extensions. Eight are starters: Maurkice Pouncey, Joe Haden, Marcus Gilbert, Bud Dupree, Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, Jon Bostic and a then-38 year-old Roethlisberger.

Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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