Due to a variety of circumstances during the preseason, chief of which was the fact that they limited the time with which the starting defense was on the field, it is not entirely easy to get a good grip on what the Pittsburgh Steelers’ plans are tonight when it comes to the secondary.
I might remind, after all, that just last season the defense changed up the starting lineup, swapping the 3-4 and nickel defenders and substituting out their projected starting strong safety, in spite of the fact that there were no indications that these changes were being weighed during the preseason.
So I do wonder what we might see tonight that we didn’t see during the preseason. I expect that we will, for starters, finally see the dime defense, more likely the quarter defense, which utilizes three cornerbacks and three safeties. They did not show this look at all in the preseason, but it became a key package by the end of last season, running it over 10 times per game toward the end.
Because of the fact that Artie Burns was sidelined for so long, and only returned to the field to participate in the final preseason game, which primarily consists of players that will soon be losing their roster spots, we never got a glimpse into how the team might plan to use him, if at all, on the field.
But in practice, when he did get back healthy, he was included in their quarter defense, in a package that kicked William Gay inside to the slot from the right position that Burns assumed, and with Sean Davis dropping from the slot to safety.
The other defenders in the package were, of course, left cornerback Ross Cockrell and starting safeties Mike Mitchell and Robert Golden, the latter of whom in that package would, and will, often move up into the box as a quasi-linebacker, the way Troy Polamalu was used in 2013 by necessity.
Throwing the monkey wrench of Justin Gilbert, who was traded for after the preseason was over, on the day of the final roster cuts, for a 2018 sixth-round draft pick, and the positive reviews that have been gathered from practices since he returned, and, really, it would not be surprising if we end up seeing something surprising in the secondary during this primetime contest.
While many of the pieces in the secondary are somewhat raw, and certainly untested, they do have many interesting components now that they can play around with, especially given the size and athleticism of players such as Davis, Gilbert, and Burns. There could be roles they are given that would limit their responsibilities while they grow into themselves and into the defense.
My biggest concern is the lack of security for the slot position, where only Davis and Gay are really to be considered as qualified to play there, though Golden would do so in need. And Gay is obviously playing outside until he isn’t. Still, the night may not go as predictably as one might expect.