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Steelers Defense Embracing Sub-Packages Under Keith Butler

Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was certainly not averse to new ideas on the defensive side of the ball. After all, there are many staple features of today’s defenses that are rooted in some of LeBeau’s own innovations and refinements in years past.

One principle that he remained fairly steadfastly dedicated to, however, was the principle of lining up with the players you have and beating your opponents, stuffing their running game to make them predictable, and forcing them into making mistakes.

More of that philosophy constituted a tendency to remain in the base 3-4 package as often as possible, which has become increasingly difficult with offenses continuing to utilize three-receiver sets and with the other skill positions becoming increasing involved in the passing game.

Even in his final season, the Steelers remained one of few teams not to play primarily in sub-packages, doing so, if I recall correctly, a bit less than half the time, whereas many teams employed five or more defensive backs 60 percent of the time or more.

While it is too early to make any sort of proclamations about the type of philosophy that Keith Butler will come to be associated with as a defensive coordinator—he has, after all, stated a number of times his commitment to stopping the run—there is evidence suggesting that he is more willing to rely upon the nickel when the scenario warrants it.

In the season opener against the Patriots, for example, the Steelers did primarily run in their nickel defense, at times with a third cornerback, at others with a third safety. They were, of course, facing Tom Brady in a hostile environment in that situation.

The following week, against the 49ers, Butler’s primary concern was clearly slowing down the run game, as quarterback Colin Kaepernick did not exactly impose quite the threat of a future Hall of Famer. When the game wound down, though, he did turn heavily to the nickel as the 49ers tried in vain to surmount a substantial scoreboard deficit.

On Monday night, against Philip Rivers and the Chargers, however, Butler did not toy around much at all, and relied heavily, substantially, upon the nickel defense. The Steelers started the game in the nickel, with nose tackle Steve McLendon on the sideline.

To give some perspective as to what exactly that might look like, the Steelers logged 76 total snaps on defense. Nickel cornerback Ross Cockrell played 70 snaps. Neither starting cornerback missed a snap.

Needless to say, that represents a game in which the defense relied nearly exclusively on the nickel to counteract what they knew was a very serious passing threat, employing three cornerbacks over 90 percent of the time.

That is, frankly, something that I can’t recall ever seeing from a LeBeau defense, at least off the top of my head. The Steelers seem well on their way to joining most of the rest of the league that primarily utilizes sub-packages over base defenses, choosing rather to get burned on the ground for being undersized than through the air for being oversized.

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