The Optimist’s Take: Spare Change For Big Nickel

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Will the Steelers make greater use of ‘big nickel’ defensive sub-packages after drafting Sean Davis?

The Steelers made no effort to obfuscate their efforts to unearth a new safety for themselves over the course of the 2016 NFL Draft. They used up more than a third of their allotted pre-draft visits to take a look at safety prospects, among them Sean Davis, whom they drafted in the second round.

This came after a season in which they were expecting to have their new starting safety come in the form of Shamarko Thomas, but after he failed to win the coaches’ confidence, they were forced to turn to veteran Will Allen, whose lack of athleticism limited what they were able to do.

That problem would seem to have been solved in adding the athletic and explosive Davis, who offers a coverage skill set, having gained his fair share of experience lining up at cornerback during his final collegiate season, and a bit the year before as well.

Also very much in the equation, of course, is Robert Golden, entering his fifth season with the team. A former undrafted free agent, he leapfrogged over Thomas on the depth chart to serve as the team’s third safety last year, and was the primary safety over a four-game span while Allen was injured, acquitting himself well to the role and earning a new three-year contract with a bit of stability.

Ostensibly, adding Davis to the mix with Golden and Mike Mitchell gives the team three talented, athletic safeties with range—and it also gives them options, particularly the option to better utilize the big nickel defense that they have employed on occasions.

To be clear, the big nickel refers not to a four-man front with down linemen, but rather a nickel defensive back package in which the extra player in the secondary is a third safety rather than a third cornerback.

The Steelers used this package frequently in 2013 with Allen as the third safety, and also got some burn out of it in 2011 utilizing Ryan Mundy. Tyrone Carter was a favorite in this role. When they have had the personnel to run it, they have.

And under this regime, which seems ever more mindful than ever, it certainly stands to reason that they would take advantage of the size and athleticism of the safeties that they have on board that can better cover tight ends, a position group that gave them issues last season.

Depending on the in-game circumstances, there will be times in which it will be advantageous to utilize the big nickel, and I would imagine that they would not pass up the opportunity to do so. It also serves the side benefit of giving Davis early playing time without counting on him to start and limiting his responsibilities.

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