When the Pittsburgh Steelers defense takes the field tonight, we are still not entirely certain just what we will be seeing. This is not in reference to the variety of new looks the defense will be presenting under new defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who has installed a number of notable changes this offseason.
Rather, there are still some questions pertaining to who will be taking the field first, or most often, at certain positions in the secondary.
The Steelers played throughout the season under the notion that third-year safety Shamarko Thomas would begin his campaign to replace the future Hall of Famer, Troy Polamalu, in the starting lineup, but reports from practice, and from the man himself, indicate that veteran Will Allen will be starting at strong safety in his place.
Thomas was guilty of a handful of mental miscues that can be in part attributed to growing pains in adjusting to the Cover 2 scheme, in one instance being late rotating over on a Y Cross to a tight end that went for a long touchdown. He also attributed the Cover 2 to his being out of position and taking a bad angle on a 49-yard touchdown run.
Because of these and other mistakes, it would seem that Thomas is being demoted, with Allen stepping in to start at strong safety due to his knowledge of the defense and dependability. That he worked with Mike Tomlin in Tampa Bay, running a variation of the Cover 2 that the former defensive backs coach is trying to install, certainly does not hurt his candidacy for the role either.
In addition to the switch at safety, it has also been reported that Antwon Blake will be starting at cornerback, with the implication being that Cortez Allen will not. Allen, who was signed to a $26 million extension prior to last season, has been the starter on opening day for the past two years, but has been demoted twice and benched once in that same span.
Allen was bothered with some minor ailments during the preseason that limited his playing time, but he was a full participant in each day of practice this week, so should he indeed be moved into a nickel role with the defense, then the demotion will not have come because of health, but rather performance reasons.
It is possible, of course, that the reporting language was simply vague, and an indication that the Steelers intended to open the game in the nickel defense, which they may likely use heavily against a strong Patriots passing attack. Should that be the case, Blake could technically ‘start’ as the nickel back without seeing every snap on defense.
For what it’s worth, Tomlin said during his press conference that he made a depth chart for a reason, in so many words. If you look at the depth chart, it lists Shamarko Thomas as the starting strong safety and Cortez Allen as a starting cornerback. Which case proves to be true, and whether or not there will be a mixture of some kind, remains to be seen.