Will 2015 Be The Year Of The Elephant In Pittsburgh?

While we wait to hear who will be the Pittsburgh Steelers next defensive coordinator now that the team has parted ways with Dick LeBeau, it’s fun to think about what changes might be in store for the unit in 2015 as the front obviously needs to be able to provide more pressure moving forward in addition to being able to stop the run.

While a lot of fans would like to see the defense shift to a traditional 4-3 in 2015, I will be surprised if that happens. In fact, more and more teams are becoming hybrid in nature while keeping their base 3-4 or 4-3 schemes in tact.

There are currently two teams that you can easily point to that fit both of those scenarios and they are the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers.

So what makes both of those units so hybrid, or as a like to call them, multiple? For starters, they have players they can rotate in that allow them to give offensess several looks up front. When you look at the Seahawks, they use a Leo position in their 4-3 while the Packers are now using an Elephant position in their 3-4.

To easily define a Leo or an Elephant, think about a player that can function as both a down 4-3 pass rushing defensive end or a standup 3-4 outside linebacker. That player not only has to be able to rush the pass rusher effectively, but also be able to function as a defensive tackle in a nickel defense and hold the edge against the run. If you’re really lucky that player can drop into space. With all of that said, good luck finding a player that can do all of that.

A perfect example of an all-around current Elephant player in the league would be the Packers Julius Peppers. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers talked about the elephant position back in June.

“An elephant for us could maybe be in certain schemes an outside backer,” Capers said. “He could be a defensive end in other schemes. You’ll see an elephant align in a lot of different spots (along the line). When you have a number of different schemes, you could see a number of different elephants on the field in different spots based off what those schemes are. I just think in this day and age, with the injury factor and that type of thing, you’ve got to have a lot of flexibility because what you play one week you might not be able to play the next week because you have a couple of guys banged up.”

Defenses around the league have become more sub-package than ever before in order to combat all of the spread offenses and hybrid tight ends. The Steelers have had trouble making that transition since the death of the every down fullback.  Over the last three years they’ve either rolled out their standard base 3-4 or their nickel in addition to an occasional dime package.

In 2014 the Steelers had three or more defensive backs on the field just 476 times out of 999 snaps (including playoffs), according to our charting. If you ask head coach Mike Tomlin, he’d probably tell you he would like to play even more sub package football moving forward.

The Steelers are fine at defensive end, nose tackle and defensive tackle as Steve McLendon, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Daniel McCullers give them good position flexibility. All four should be able to function in hybrid 4-3 under fronts when the need arises. All four should also be able to play the two interior positions in the 3-4 nickel come next season as well. And obviously, all four of those players can play in a base 3-4 front.

So, is there an Elephant candidate currently on the roster? It doesn’t look like it from where I’m sitting. It certainly isn’t Jarvis Jones, at least not yet. To be an Elephant you have to be able to rush the passer well and be able to do it from either side and so far the former first round draft pick has yet to show us he can do that.

Jason Worilds is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March and if the Steelers pay big money to retain him, it’s hard seeing him being used situationally. He hasn’t had his hand in the dirt since his days at Virginia Tech, but if the Steelers do wind up re-signing him, you just might see that happen in 2015. Still, I don’t view him as being a good elephant prospect. Maybe I’m wrong.

It will be interesting to see how the Steelers handle Worilds during free agency. Will they let him walk and try to sign a player that best fits the elephant role instead? We’ll see. They reportedly had interest in signing Mike Neal, another Packers Elephant, last offseason, but Green Bay wound up getting him back under contract.

Much like the Packers have Peppers, Neal and Nick Perry, the Steelers will need a few elephants brought in during the offseason if they’re going to try to become a hybrid 3-4 in 2015. I’m almost certain they’ll draft a pass rusher in April, but just one new elephant won’t be enough.

In the meantime we all should hope that Jones has one hell of an offseason. He not only needs to get stringer, but also needs to become a better pass rusher as he relies way too much on trying to beat tackles around the edge like he did at Georgia.

Even if 2015 winds up being the year of the elephant in Pittsburgh, don’t expect the defense to improve overnight. Remember, this team still has issues at the cornerback position that they need to solve and the safety play needs to improve drastically as well.

Multiple and hybrid will be buzz words you’re likely to hear all offseason as it relates to the Steelers defense and it’s important to remember what Tomlin said about scheme last March.

“We have to be multiple,” Tomlin said. “We have to be capable of providing pressure, but more important than that you have to be able to provide pressure with four or fewer (pass rushers). I think that’s what gives you the flexibility to be something to deal with.”

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