If you’ve watched the Pittsburgh Steelers lately, you may have noticed that their average personnel on any given play isn’t as big as has been tradition.
On offense, the Steelers, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger pushing to run the no huddle, spend much of their time in three wide receiver sets. On defense, the nickel defense has become their base package, with no nose tackle.
This is the direction that the more explosive offenses have been trending toward in recent years. It’s also how defenses have been adapting to cope with such an offense. We saw the Steelers’ secondary get stretched thin against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV, as the most notable relevant example.
It’s likely not a coincidence, then, that the Steelers find themselves this year with more wide receivers and defensive backs than ever.
On the offensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh kept six true wide receivers, which is the first time they have done so since signing Arnaz Battle, who was brought in to become a core special teams player.
In addition to those six, there is also rookie Dri Archer, who is as much a wide receiver in this offense as he is a running back.
Then we turn to the defensive side of the ball, on which the Steelers kept 11 defensive backs for the first time under Mike Tomlin, carrying six cornerbacks in addition to five safeties.
Among those cornerbacks is B.W. Webb, a waiver signing and former fourth-round draft pick that they acquired only a few days ago.
Yesterday, the Steelers added four more wide receivers and defensive backs into the mix on the practice squad, signing wide receivers Derek Moye and C.J. Goodwin, in addition to rookie draft pick cornerback Shaquille Richardson and safety Ross Ventrone, to serve on Pittsburgh’s scout team units.
A final head count gives the Steelers nine wide receivers and 13 defensive backs, including seven cornerbacks and six safeties.
That’s 22 players out of their 63 between the 53-man roster and the 10-man practice squad made up of receivers and defensive backs, or just under 35 percent.
18 of the 53 members of the final roster also consist of wide receivers or defensive backs, which is just a hair over a third of the entire roster.
It is a natural evolution not simply of where the league as a whole has been heading, but how the Steelers themselves have progressed over the last few years in order to adapt to that evolution, becoming more reliant on the passing game and in stopping opposing quarterbacks while giving more leeway on the ground.
In 2010, the Steelers gave up fewer yards on the ground than anybody. They followed that in the next two years by giving up less yards through the air than anybody. The offense has been controlled more and more through the air. As much as they talk about wanting to be balanced, things seem headed in the opposite direction, for better or worse.