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Projecting A New Look Steelers’ Defense In 2016

We’re just wrapping up the bye week, meaning there isn’t a whole lot to discuss until Mike Tomlin’s press conference tomorrow. Instead, I wanted to offer a short preview of one new wrinkle to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense in 2017.

It’s a long ways away and so much could change but some food for thought.

Several days ago, I was asked who I thought would start at inside linebacker next year: Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, or Tyler Matakevich.

I said none of the above.

No, this isn’t a plea for L.J. Fort, Steven Johnson, or some hotshot draft pick.

This is a logical conclusion.

1. More teams are moving to sub-package football. In Pittsburgh, the 3-4 isn’t even a thing in practice. Keith Butler called it obsolete. It’s now used roughly 20% of the time over the course of the season.

2. The Steelers heavy investments in the secondary will compel them to use as many players as possible.

It only makes sense that, depth chart listings aside, Robert Golden will become the de facto inside linebacker opposite Ryan Shazier. Vince Williams will see a chunk of playing time but Golden, like so many teams (Arizona, Los Angeles, Kansas City), will be their starter when you turn on the tape.

It’s something Pittsburgh wanted to do right away this year. Artie Burns saw nine snaps, all dime packages, in Week One against Washington. We’ve seen them use dime as much as 30 times against the Philadelphia Eagles this year.

A trend that began in the latter stages of the 2015 year and immediately carried over into 2016. Because of some rookie struggles, plus being behind the last two weeks, it’s barely been touched, but it’s still been used about 11% of the time this season. That number could go up dramatically in a year.

Next year, Burns and Sean Davis will be another year older, another year wiser. And it’s hard to imagine those two seeing limited roles again.

So there’s two: Burns and Davis. Mike Mitchell has a spot locked down while William Gay and Ross Cockrell will return in the exact same or similar roles. Toss Golden back in, worthy of a starting role, and there’s six guys. That’s your dime defense.

For me at least, it’s hard to argue which one of those guys will be phased out.

Senquez Golson isn’t even factored into this equation. It’s impossible to assume you’ll get anything from a player who hasn’t seen an NFL snap in two seasons, his roster spot even far from guaranteed, but he still is someone who the team hoped would be their starting slot cornerback this season.

Point is, there are a lot of names looking to be infused into the secondary. And it only makes sense, with the way the league is going, their dime defense becomes more and more common.

I don’t think it’ll be quite as extreme as say, Arizona, where Deone Bucannon serves as an every down linebacker. I would compare it more to Kansas City. Golden takes the role of Daniel Sorensen/Hussain Abdullah, Williams serving the Justin March-Lillard role. I don’t think they ever worked together but Keith Butler and KC’s defensive coordinator Bob Sutton run similar defenses.

Entering this week, March-Lillard saw about 40% of the defensive snaps. Sorensen about 45%. Golden has much better odds of being viewed as an every down player and could be the deep safety in non-dime situations – shuttling Davis back to the bench – though that’ll depend heavily on Davis’ development. Not really the point here.

Again, all just thinking out loud. But it’s sensible for everyone. It’s why Williams’ contract was so cheap. The small three year extension he got is worth it for someone who winds up playing less than half the time but he’s a quality enough player that you still want to have him be involved in the defense.

But with the league spreading the field more, relying more on athletes, all a byproduct of the zooming-paced college system, the NFL will continue to adapt and evolve, for better or worse.

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