Expect Steelers To Use Nickel As Majority Grouping In 2016

Last year we saw an increase in the Pittsburgh  Steelers’ use of the nickel package, which subs in another defensive back for a linebacker. This, of course, is a direct reaction to the increasing number of three wide receiver sets that offenses tend to employ. And the rate at which offenses utilize three wideouts is growing.

By this alone, we would assume to see some more nickel packages being used by Keith Butler and company. But with looking at the Steelers’ 2016 schedule, it becomes more apparent that the nickel defense will be trotting out onto the field quite often.


  • 1 Sep 12 7:10PM EDT at Redskins
  • 2 Sep 18 1:00PM EDT vs Bengals
  • 3 Sep 25 4:25PM EDT at Eagles
  • 4 Oct 2 8:30PM EDT vs Chiefs
  • 5 Oct 9 1:00PM EDT vs Jets
  • 6 Oct 16 1:00PM EDT at Dolphins
  • 7 Oct 23 4:25PM EDT vs Patriots
  • 8 BYE
  • 9 Nov 6 1:00PM EST at Ravens
  • 10 Nov 13 4:25PM EST vs Cowboys
  • 11 Nov 20 1:00PM EST at Browns
  • 12 Nov 24 8:30PM EST at Colts
  • 13 Dec 4 4:25PM EST vs Giants
  • 14 Dec 11 1:00PM EST at Bills
  • 15 Dec 18 8:30PM EST  at Bengals
  • 16 Dec 25 4:30PM EST vs Ravens
  • 17 Jan 1 1:00PM EST vs Browns

As always, the Steelers will play their AFC North opponents twice, and in addition they will play the entire NFC East throughout the season. On top of that, they will battle the Colts, Dolphins, Patriots, Eagles, Jets, Chiefs, and Bills. Excluding their AFC North opponents, the Steelers played against 3 of these teams last year (A loss to New England, a decisive win over Indianapolis, and a loss to the Chiefs).

Within the division, the Steelers were swept by the Ravens, split with the Bengals, and swept the Browns. So heading into the upcoming season, how good are some of the offenses that Keith Butler will have to gameplan against? In short, they’re pretty good.

Nine times in 2016, the Steelers will be playing a team that ranked in the top half of the league in terms in passing yards (CIN, PHI, NE, BAL, NYJ, NYG, WAS) in 2015. And most of these teams run with 3 receivers quite often and, with the exception of the Bengals and the Jets, have below average rushing attacks. This will prove to be a great test of this team’s improvements in the secondary, because we already know they can stop the run.

It’s important to note that the Bills’ passing offense improved throughout the year, the Colts were without their star quarterback Andrew Luck for much of the season, Ryan Tannehill now has Adam Gase to work with, and Dallas will have Tony Romo back. These teams could very well slip into the top half of the league when next season is over. And this means Pittsburgh’s defense will have their work cut out for them through the air.

With the addition of defensive backs Artie Burns and Sean Davis, this team looks to be establishing the necessary depth in the secondary to employ a nickel formation using multiple personnel. I don’t know about you, but I think Davis would fit this role extremely well, as he has the size and speed to cover a variety of receiving threats.  Though raw, he can hopefully fill this space well.

Regardless, the Steelers will undoubtedly feel comfortable with a formation that is increasingly becoming their base defense. This also means that the defensive line will be called upon heavily to handle things at the line of scrimmage and put a good amount of pressure on quarterbacks to make up for the lack of size. Thankfully, guys like Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are performing at a high level, and the addition of Javon Hargrave can certainly provide the depth and boost they need at the nose. The NFL is continually evolving, and so are the defensive mindsets. With that in mind, be prepared to see a lot of the nickel this upcoming year from the Steelers.

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