This has truly been one of the more interesting seasons from a schematic point of view for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Mike Prisuta covered a list of the many different things the unit has done so far this season, which has included rotations, substitutions, and some more exotic combinations based on the opposing offense.
The first and most enduring tweak within the defense so far has been the shifting of Artie Burns out of the starting lineup. That began with a rotation but has ultimately led to him on the bench in favor of Coty Sensabaugh.
The most recent weak, however, takes Sensabaugh off the field in favor of Jordan Dangerfield as an extra, third safety out of the base 3-4 defense. This is a package that they began using on Sunday as a counter to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ run-heavy sets with only one wide receiver on the field.
While some of these defensive adjustments have come about as a response or reaction to what they have been seeing on the field, or failing to combat, it has also largely been a product of simply having the personnel available to them.
“When we get guys healthy and you’re able to do different things, then you get to explore different things and have that type of diversity”, defensive captain Cameron Heyward said of the emerging versatility within his unit. “It allows us to play a lot of guys”.
Among those guys is L.J. Fort, who in recent weeks has earned a regular role as the team’s dime linebacker, replacing both Vince Williams and Jon Bostic, with Morgan Burnett also on the field. In recent weeks, Burnett has also been rotating with Terrell Edmunds at strong safety.
This is a topic that Head Coach Mike Tomlin was asked about and addressed on Tuesday during his pre-game press conference ahead of Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos. “We don’t plug gaps. We don’t plug leaks”, he said about the approach of using players in a variety of specialty roles. “We’re continually globally working to grow and grow in all areas. And that allows us to be what we need to be when we need to be it”.
Tomlin has been perhaps one of the foremost figures in promoting the idea of modern football as a sub-package sport, frequently commenting to that effect in comments made during the offseason at Owners Meetings and similar events, so this is no surprise.
“Sometimes we’re capable of walking into a stadium and being a run-dominant team”, he went on. “Sometimes we’re capable of stepping into a stadium and throwing it every down. Sometimes we step into a stadium and we’re capable of no-huddle, sometimes we huddle often. You better be versatile in the National Football League in all three phases, and we work continually to be”.