Traditionally, Dick LeBeau’s Pittsburgh Steelers defense has not often deviated far from standard personnel looks, nor engaged in an excessive amount of rotation outside of the defensive line during a game.
The veteran defensive coordinator seems to be relying on switching up looks and personnel more frequently these days.
No doubt that has a lot to do with just how many of his older, experienced—and most importantly, trusted—veterans the defense has lost over the course of the past few seasons via free agency or release.
Consider this: the Steelers have just three players left who were full-time starters on defense during the 2012 season.
Only inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, cornerback Ike Taylor, and safety Troy Polamalu were considered starters at the time. Brett Keisel is still with the team, but he’s currently no longer a starter.
During the 2013 season, veterans such as Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, and Jason Worilds moved into the starting lineup, while then-rookie Jarvis Jones got a cameo role in what would become his full-time starting spot this year.
For 2014, the Steelers added Mike Mitchell at safety, Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker, and Cam Thomas at defensive end as new starters who were not even with the team last year.
With all the changeover, it’s not surprising to see that the Steelers have been rotating more players, and more frequently, than in the past.
Arthur Moats and Sean Spence, for example, have gotten playing time in either the base or nickel defense, rotating with Jones, Shazier, and Timmons. There was a time when the team’s linebackers would routinely play every snap of the game unless they were injured.
In the last game, the Steelers added a new look near the goal line that I don’t recall seeing them run in recent years, in which they put four defensive end and six linebackers on the field.
In addition to the four starters, they added Vince Williams and Terence Garvin near the goal line, and put Stephon Tuitt on the line while moving Thomas into the interior. Only Polamalu remained from the secondary.
There was also the big nickel look, which took the outside linebackers off the field altogether.
The one area that hasn’t seen much flexibility yet has been the secondary. Polamalu was one of only two players to play every snap against the Ravens. The only time the other three members of the starting secondary came off the field was during the 4-6-1 looks at the goal line.
With a team in transition, moving on from one generation to the next, and some starting spots perhaps not entirely secure, it should be no surprise that LeBeau and the Steelers are employing a wider variety of looks. After all, necessity is the mother of innovation.