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Steelers Test Whether Size Matters With Big Nickel

As several venues have written about since last week’s poor showing by the Pittsburgh Steelers in a 31-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Steelers have been cramming the nickel defense down offenses’ throats in the preseason.

The only problem is that opposing offenses have been eating it up.

When the Steelers go to their nickel package, they get small, and they get small in a hurry.

Defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt (and Brett Keisel) become defensive tackles. Outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds become defensive ends. Safety Troy Polamalu becomes a linebacker. And their two mack linebackers, Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier, play a 4-3 look.

The smaller look has had offenses salivating at the prospect of running against that front, and they’ve done so with great success. This goes back to last season as well, including the quarters package, which was most notably exploited by the Green Bay Packers.

Which is why I took especial interest to one play on the Carolina Panthers’ opening drive. The Panthers had just barely converted a fourth and one play—upheld upon review due to inconclusive evidence.

After an incomplete pass, the Panthers were facing second and 10. And they were also facing four defensive linemen.

At defensive end were Tuitt and Keisel, with Cam Thomas and Steve McLendon at defensive tackle. Timmons came up to make the tackle on the running back, who had been bottled up by the defensive tackles penetrating and holding the point up the middle. Tuitt and Thomas broke contain to push him back.

Could this be a glimpse at a new strategy to counteract the size disparity the Steelers face when they employ their sub-packages? To prove that it wasn’t a fluke, later in the game, the Steelers used a front line of Ethan Hemer, Daniel McCullers, Roy Philon, and Josh Mauro on a first and 10 running play, stopping it for a gain of three.

That line held for another play, but when the Steelers allowed a rollout first-down reception, it was back to the base package. A few plays later, it was back on the field for one more play, with McCullers engulfing another running back for a loss of one.

The same four players were out there again in the third quarter, but that was at the goal line. This other four-man front is distinctly different.

This is a true nickel package, with five defensive backs. The outside linebackers are taken off the field. Not that it’s unique. The Steelers used it sparingly two years ago, with Heyward as a defensive tackle.

But it was surprising to see it last night, especially in light of the disappointment the small nickel package has been during the preseason. This look would certainly help the Steelers alleviate the size issue that they face when they go to their sub-packages, but are they seriously considering employing this look, or was this just an experiment that will go back in the box?

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