Tim Benz: For Steelers’ defense, it’ll be safety first
If you are like me, you’ve heard it 100 times since the NFL Draft ended.
“What are the Steelers gonna do on defense? They didn’t even get a linebacker to fill Ryan Shazier’s spot!”
No. No, they didn’t.
By all accounts they tried to trade up to get Rashaan Evans of Alabama. But with limited picks to swap this year, a lack of willingness to trade from next year’s pool, and walled off by conference foes who didn’t want to trade, that prospect became impossible.
So, yeah, what are they going to do on defense?
I don’t know if it’s going to work. But here’s what they are going to do.
First of all, if you are clutching onto your old-school definition of what the Steelers’ 3-4 base defense has been, please let me pry it from your cold, dead hands. Because we need to crumple it up and throw it away.
My Steelers Radio Network colleague, Matt Williamson — also of WilliamsonFootball.com — joined me on our Breakfast with Benz podcast after the draft. As a former college and pro scout, he described what will likely be the Steelers “base defense” moving forward.
“Think of it more as a 5-1,” Williamson said.
The “5” up front would be familiar. For the purposes of a “starting lineup,” Javon Hargrave is on the nose flanked by Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward. T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree would be the pass rushers on the outside of the formation as normal.
Barring a push from Cam Sutton, Artie Burns will be a starter at cornerback along with Joe Haden.
So, that’s seven players. And that’s all pretty familiar. Where the concept — or at least the nomenclature — changes is the “1” in “5-1.”
That’s basically going to be Vince Williams or Jon Bostic, playing more of a middle linebacker than a traditional 3-4 inside linebacker role.
That leaves three spots on the field to be populated by “safeties,” with the two at the second level of the defense performing de facto linebacker tasks.
“I think they’ll have two Kam Chancellors,” said Williamson, referring to the Seahawks star safety. “If you think about Seattle, they’ll have Earl Thomas as a free safety, then they’ll have Kam Chancellor as kind of a lurk defender, sort of in the box. But as a high safety in the box. If you have two of them matched with a 5-1 concept, then I think that’s the best way to picture this.”
Presumably, one safety assuming that job would be free agent signee Morgan Burnett. Another may be Sean Davis or one of the two draft choices, Terrell Edmunds or Marcus Allen.
Granted, Chancellor is 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds. All of these Steelers safeties are a few inches shorter than that and up to 20 pounds lighter.
That’s what makes Chancellor unique, though. A better comparison size-wise that Williamson offered is Telvin Smith, the Jacksonville Jaguars linebacker who tortured the Steelers at times last year. He’s 2 pounds lighter and just an inch-and-a-half taller than Edmunds.
The bigger question may be who plays that “Earl Thomas” free safety role on the third level of the defense. It could be Davis or Edmunds. Or, as Williamson speculated, it may be Sutton moving from his corner position.
As Williamson cautioned, that “base” look may only be on the field one-third to one-quarter of the time against a back and two tight ends, or two backs and one tight end.
On Saturday after the draft, Mike Tomlin also differentiated the role of safeties versus linebackers in base as opposed to subpackages. That allows for the idea of Bostic and Williams still being on the field together.
When opponents go to three-receiver formations or get into more passing-prone situations, simply drop Hargrave from the unit outlined above and put Mike Hilton on the field to play his usual slot corner role.
Now, you are looking at Tuitt, Heyward, Dupree and Watt up front. Haden, Hilton and Burns as your corners, plus three safeties and either Williams or Bostic.
“This is probably something that is just indicative of the safety position in today’s NFL,” Tomlin said. “In sub-package defense, when you start putting DBs down in the box, several of these guys have had that in their past and we are excited about looking at that as a component of our play.”
One worry is in their effort to become faster and more nimble against the pass, they leave themselves vulnerable against the run. That was something that plagued the Steelers in their four losses last year.
But it’s clear the Steelers have a new motto on defense: “Safety” first.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.