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Oops, All Safeties: Why The Steelers Went So Heavy In The Secondary

Two safeties. Zero linebackers. And a thousands of confused Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans.

Yesterday, we wrote why the team passed up on taking any inside linebackers. Today’s article is a similar story but a different angle. Why did Kevin Colbert load up on so many safeties? Two of their seven picks, Terrell Edmunds in the first and Marcus Allen in the fifth, without a linebacker in sight.

Part of is has to do with what we wrote yesterday. The Mack linebacker can’t be a specialized position and all the team was left with were a bunch of specialists. Pittsburgh adjusted their strategy and followed the trend of the league.

As Colbert and Mike Tomlin have referenced time and time again, the league has evolved from just 4-3 or 3-4. It’s sub-package, hybrid-heavy world. Pittsburgh played with at least five defensive backs on the field over 60% of the time. That means you need flexibility, versatility, and depth.

You need players to match up against every personnel grouping, every matchup, and be flexible – there’s that word again – to run whatever scheme is required for the gameplan that week. When you have speed, safeties over linebackers, you’re able to do that. And as we mentioned, what you give up in run defense from the position is helped by the fact these heavy sub-packages often happen in clear passing situation – third and long.

Now, don’t expect the the Steelers to go punch-drunk with getting safeties on the field. They’re still going to play their base 3-4 against heavy personnel on early downs, their 2-3-5 nickel versus 11 in the same situations. But on third and long, they’ll be all the more flexible and all the more effective.

2017 was Keith Butler’s most complex defense. There were 11 personnel groupings, all the way from goal line to 3-4, to 3-3-5, to even a couple snaps with seven DBs on the field (2-2-7). Adding the firepower to have guys who can come down in the box, cover tight ends, play the deep half, single high, blitz, support the run, roam sideline to sideline, it opens up the playbook all the more.

Again, there are short and long-term concerns about the Mack linebacker position. But instead of forcing the issue with a guy the Steelers didn’t think fit, they went all-in on a different route. Safety depth is just as important as corner because you’re often going to have three on the field. Now, Pittsburgh is insulated, with a depth chart going from Davis to Burnett, Edmunds, Allen, and Nat Berhe, all who are starter capable and/or starting experience.

I kinda dig it. It’s a new-wave approach, getting ahead of the curve. For an old-school team, an old-school approach, the Steelers are helping to lead the charge.

*I hope you all get the reference in the title, easily the dumbest thing I’ve ever written. I’m so sorry.

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