It seemed odd to me when reviewing the snap counts from the Pittsburgh Steelers game against the Cleveland Browns that three of the four starting members of the secondary all played every snap but two.
I realized that something must have occurred during the game that I missed to cause this quirk, and indeed it did, as the Steelers once again broke out an unusual sub-package when the Browns were knocking at their goal line.
The Steelers did this during their Week Two loss to the Baltimore Ravens, in which they ran a 4-6-1 formation, taking out the secondary aside from Troy Polamalu and adding an extra linemen and two middle linebackers.
That formation proved to be very effective in stopping the Ravens’ efforts on the ground in the running game, but it was victimized twice when Joe Flacco elected to put the ball in the air, leading to two short touchdowns.
The Steelers bulked up on their front seven again against the Browns on Sunday, but not without reviewing and modifying their strategy. Instead of leaving just one defensive back on the field, they used Will Allen—who was not replacing Mike Mitchell with an injury, as was reported during the game—as a second safety.
While Mitchell was injured during the game, that did not appear to hold any relevance to this two-play sequence. He was on the field for the play prior, and was untouched. He was simply replaced by Allen.
Likewise, Sean Spence was on the field for the previous play, but instead of leaving him on the field, the Steelers switched him out for Vince Williams and Terence Garvin, making it a 4-5-2 formation.
Spence was involved in the 4-6-1 defense against the Ravens, so it’s unlikely that this substitution was made because the team was unsure if he could do it.
By this time in the game, Steve McLendon was already out, meaning that Cam Thomas and Cameron Heyward were at defensive tackle.
After a holding penalty on Cortez Allen, the Browns had first and goal on the two-yard line. Ben Tate ran off right guard right up to the goal line, where he was met by Williams and others.
But Tate got into the end zone on second down when Williams was cut down by the leading tight end. Polamalu tried to grab him from the side, while Lawrence Timmons attempted to jump over the line and make contact in the backfield, but the efforts of both were in vain.
It took four games for the Steelers to break out a variation of this big sub-package again, but then again, it hasn’t been that frequently that they’ve found themselves defending first and goal from the two-yard line—not that that has stopped opponents from scoring further away.
Nonetheless, it raises the question as to when we might see this formation, or a variation of it, again. Will it show up every time there’s a goal line stand, or were they just throwing an unconventional look at their opponent to see if it would throw them off?