While the Pittsburgh Steelers are getting back safety Will Allen today, it is not certain if he will resume his place in the starting lineup after his backup, Robert Golden, has performed capably over the span of the past four games.
What is certain is that the Steelers can now feel comfortable in the level of performance of three of their safeties when it comes to the defensive side of the ball—that is, from the team’s perspective, and not from the fan base.
The coaches all believe in the ability of Mike Mitchell, Allen, and Golden to be in the right place and on the right page within the defense, and each safety brings something a bit different to the table.
It makes me wonder if, given this, we might see some more of the big nickel that we got a sampling of during the season opener, when the Steelers brought in Golden as the third safety in a five defensive back look against the Patriots and their tight end-heavy offense.
While the Steelers’ next opponent, the Raiders, are not necessarily leading the charge of tight end-heavy offenses, particularly as it pertains to the receiving game—Mychal Rivera leads their tight ends with 11 receptions for 75 yards—they do throw to all of their tight ends.
And their fullback. Marcel Reese predictably doesn’t run the ball much, but he does get his share of touches through the air, ranking third on the team with 20 receptions. His 203 receiving yards also ranks third, and his three touchdown receptions puts him in a four-way tie for first on the team.
Of course this philosophy doesn’t apply simply to this week, either. If the Steelers believe that they have three safeties who can play, then they might as well find ways to get all three of them to play when it is most beneficial to the defense. An increasing number of teams choose to use a third safety rather than a third cornerback more often.
This would be especially important if the team does choose to reinstate Allen into the starting lineup. Allen, 33, is in his 12th season and is on a year-to-year contract. His predecessor, Troy Polamalu, just retired after 12 seasons at the age of 33. If he returns next season at all, he still won’t be around for much longer than that.
In the meantime, they will need to keep their eyes open for his replacement, the frontrunner obviously being Golden, who, notably, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. If they plan on him being Allen’s successor and are yet giving Allen back the starting job, then they better find a way to keep feeding him snaps.
While Golden has not had a lot of playing experience entering this season—around 100 snaps—he is in his fourth year of the system and has, according to his coaches, a high football acumen above the neck. He is only now climbing out of the hole as a career special teamer; it would be disappointing to see him knocked back down.