Steelers Defense Nickeled Last Season, But Not Much Dime

During the 2013 season, the Pittsburgh Steelers uncharacteristically turned to the dime defense quite often—or rather the quarters package, most often using three safeties in addition to three cornerbacks—at a rate higher than they likely ever had before.

This was done in part by necessity due to the season-ending injury suffered by inside linebacker Larry Foote and the lack of faith that the coaching staff had in forcing rookie sixth-round draft pick Vince Williams to log heavy snaps.

While Williams did technically start most of the season, more often than not he would be playing less than half of the teams’ defensive snaps in games due to the fact that they regularly replaced him with an extra defensive back, which typically resulted in safety  Troy Polamalu roaming the second level of the defense in a quasi-linebacker role.

This past season saw a dramatic departure from that, despite the fact that they ended up rotating three linebackers during the season. In part due to injuries, ineffectiveness, and inexperience in the secondary, the Steelers used sub-packages well below the league average, and almost didn’t use the dime defense at all.

While the majority of the league now favors sub-packages as their primary defense in order to better defend a game that is becoming increasing reliant upon a substantial number of passes being thrown, the Steelers remained one of few teams that just slightly used their base package more frequently than they added extra defensive backs onto the field, though it wasn’t a significant margin.

The usage rate of sub-packages has gone up, relative to previous iterations of this defense, but it’s interesting that the usage of six defensive backs last year came at a statistically insignificant rate—comfortably under two percent. Of an estimated 512 defensive snaps last season with extra defensive backs on the field, only 10 came with more than five.

And those 10 snaps came with a slight mixture of dime and quarters—six cornerbacks versus a third safety, basically—with five coming against the New Orleans Saints, three against the Atlanta Falcons, and twice during the Steelers’ playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens.

Half of those six defensive back snaps took place with Ike Taylor’s return late in the year, facing Drew Brees and the Saints’ explosive passing attack. For those snaps, the Steelers relied primarily upon safety Will Allen in the quarterback package, but Brice McCain was also used in this role.

By the time the Falcons game rolled along, however, the Steelers were only left with four cornerbacks as it is, and I find it interesting that that is when they elected to use the dime package.

Those three snaps went to B.W. Webb, the second-year cornerback that the Steelers claimed off waivers just prior to the season. It was his first taste of playing time on defense all year, and each play came on third down, unsurprisingly. Webb got one more snap in the regular season a week later in the nickel, and then he played two snaps in the dime package in the playoffs. Time will tell if we see more of this in 2015.

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