The preseason has been fairly illuminating so far for the Pittsburgh Steelers of 2017, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. While there are still a lot of question to be answered—and injuries to be overcome—we have seen some interesting developments that could inform us about the Steelers’ intentions for how the defense will be run this season.
That is not a guarantee, of course. It is not infrequent that we see a team try something out in the preseason only to abandon it in time for the games that actually matter, likely because they were not happy with the results. But the Steelers’ dabbling into different things has largely worked so far.
The results from their spending more time in a 3-4 front, and in using a faux 4-3 over front with one outside linebacker dropping to the middle of the defense, have both been effective tools so far, which suggests that they are likely to carry on into the regular season.
Another facet of the preseason defense that has been both frequent and prolific is the use of the cat blitz, sending a cornerback typically off the edge of the defense to rush the passer. They have done this frequently with a number of different players and have found success doing it.
Obviously, the headliner here has so far been first-year cornerback Mike Hilton, who right now I would argue is in position to claim a spot on the 53-man roster. He has already recorded one sack and nearly had a safety as well. He recorded multiple other pressure for his efforts.
He has not been the only one to blitz, or to have success, however. Brandon Dixon, for example, toward the end of Sunday’s game, blitzed a couple of times. He did not record a sack, but one of his blitzes produced pressure on the quarterback that led to a sack for Farrington Huguenin, with Dixon almost but not quite doing enough on the play to earn a half-sack designation.
Artie Burns was also used on the blitz, as was William Gay. I recall Burns showing some physicality in working off the pass protection of the running back. I cannot remember off the top of my head if Ross Cockrell has been used on a passing blitz yet, but he did execute a run blitz in the first preseason game.
It is an interesting strategy for a team that has struggled to consistently generate pressure with a four-man rush. After all, the cornerbacks are typically the fastest players on the defense, and getting to the quarterback as quickly as possible, naturally, is valuable.
It doesn’t seem as though the Steelers have used the safeties to blitz during this preseason much at all, but we know that Sean Davis did it a fair amount during his rookie season. That will be something to watch for during Sunday’s game against the Colts.