The Pittsburgh Steelers introduced a new wrinkle to their dime defense coming out of the bye week when they began replacing both inside linebackers in favor of L.J. Fort, the fourth-year veteran who has been with the organization in some capacity since 2015.
The coaching staff always talked about Fort’s coverage ability, but they’ve gotten a better look at it recently, seeing nickel snaps last season after Ryan Shazier’s injury, and in a rotation with Tyler Matakevich when Vince Williams missed a game earlier this year.
These highlights, particularly the latter, were what prompted the dime package adjustment. Perhaps we saw a new tweak to their base 3-4 defense as well in the last game on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. For the majority of the game, whenever the Jaguars showed just one wide receiver, the Steelers countered with a 3-4 front and a safety replacing one of the two cornerbacks.
In this case, that safety was Jordan Dangerfield, presumably because Terrell Edmunds and Morgan Burnett already have roles, and Burnett even rotates a bit at strong safety. Whichever one of them isn’t already in the game would be asked to play a different role. In Burnett’s case, he would be asked to prepare for three roles, as the dime, strong safety, and the third safety at the corner spot.
Head Coach Mike Tomlin was asked about how the roles for Fort and Dangerfield emerged over the course of the season as they have developed from practice squad guys to meaningful defensive contributors over the stretch of recent seasons.
“We expect those guys to be ready when called upon. We live by that creed, ‘the standard is the standard’. Those guys understand that”, the head coach said. “In regards to [Dangerfield], Danger’s got a certain playing personality. You guys watch us in Latrobe and so forth. You guys know what that playing personality is. He’s the right guy for the job”.
Speaking of Dangerfield, he has been with the team even longer than Fort, originally brought in in 2014 after having spent time in the offseason with the Buffalo Bills the year prior to that. He has held a variety of statuses within the organization over the past five years, though is only in his second season on the 53-man roster.
He spent all of the 2016 season on the roster, and in fact even started two games. But an injury late in the preseason sidelined him and resulted in the Steelers trading for J.J. Wilcox. By the time he was healthy, there was no room on the roster, so he was re-signed to the practice squad.
A year later, he is back on the 53, and has perhaps now been given a niche role within the defense. The Denver Broncos are their next opponent and are another team who likes to run the ball, so it will be interesting to see if he used in that role once again, and how much.