The Pittsburgh Steelers figure to be without two starting members of their secondary tomorrow, with strong safety Morgan Burnett and nickel cornerback Mike Hilton listed as doubtful to face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night.
Needless to say, that is going to take some adjusting. While it goes without saying that rookie Terrell Edmunds will take Burnett’s spot at safety—he has already started two of the Steelers’ first three games—it gets a little more complicated after that. Especially the deeper that you get into sub-packages.
Because Burnett is not just a safety in the defense. He has also been their dimebacker. During practices that he missed last week, it was Nat Berhe who took the dimebacker snaps, and we saw him take those snaps in-game.
But with Hilton missing time, that has also added a deeper level of complications for Cameron Sutton and Coty Sensabaugh, who are the options to play in the slot. That left the coaching staff with the task of getting more creative at the back end, which we could see take place tomorrow.
That would be using an actual linebacker in the dimebacker role, namely rookie inside linebacker Matthew Thomas. Should he see the field on defense, it would be for the first time during the regular season, but the Steelers did use him in sub-packages with the first-team unit during the preseason.
That was in a specially-devised package that they called the ‘Seminole’, and at that time saw three inside linebackers on the field together, with an outside linebacker off the field. While it’s possible that we see that, it’s more likely that we simply see him play the same role Burnett and Berhe have played.
After all, this is a player that the Steelers have used as a gunner. They haven’t even done that with Berhe. And they’ve given him some tough assignments in coverage. They’ve pretty much spent the entire offseason going back to OTAs testing out the range with which they can use him.
So if he does indeed play on defense, it won’t be completely outside of the ordinary. It’s an option that has been prepped. Perhaps they have even been planning on getting him on the field in some capacity after they grew confident enough in his ability to carry out his assignments.
Injuries may have cut short his learning curve, however. The Steelers have enjoyed using the dime package pretty liberally so far this year, even more than they did a year ago. It will essentially be the same look whether it’s Burnett or Berhe or Thomas, even though he is a linebacker—and perhaps it will be more effective against the run.