Devil’s Advocate: Pick Your 3rd-Down Defense

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: What would be the Steelers’ preferred third-and-long defense?

There are a lot of options for this one, so I’m going to get right into it. They could say in their 3-4 defense, or their standard nickel. Or they could switch out Vince Williams for another inside linebacker. Or they could switch him out for another defensive back—either a cornerback or a safety.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that we are talking about a scenario in the game in which the offense is trailing and is facing something like a 3rd and 7. They align in 11 personnel with three wide receivers, and they look like they’re going to pass. What is your defense?

Javon Hargrave’s growth, and the general improvement of the depth along the defensive line, could persuade one to leave the 3-4 front on the field even in this situation, if the defense really is that much better generating pressure up the middle.

The standard answer would be the typical nickel, replacing the nose tackle position—though not necessarily replacing Hargrave—with a third cornerback. But in such a situation, you could also replace Williams for a linebacker you’re more comfortable with in coverage. Right now the only option on that front could be L.J. Fort.

Or do you swap out the linebacker altogether and go for a defensive back? Robert Golden has been used in that role a decent amount the past three years. Daimion Stafford could also be an option this year. That would still give a bigger presence in case of a run.

But they do have cornerbacks this year, and even some cornerbacks with size. You could use a fourth cornerback to line up against a running back or a tight end, especially if you are particularly confident that they are going to pass. There are a lot of options, and it could take a while to sort out.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

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