Few coaches have been a more vocal advocate of ‘sub-package football’ in recent years than Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin, who has made it a key point of conversation in the offseason for a while now. As the years go on, you also start to see it more and more on his roster, and in what they do on the field. That could reach a new level this year, with a variety of talents a running back, wide receiver, linebacker and in the defensive backfield.
Said Tomlin following yesterday’s practice during his media availability, courtesy of Teresa Varley on the team’s website, “I think the versatility of all of the guys” will be a focus over the course of the next couple of weeks as they prepare to trim a 91-man roster down to 53 players.
“Position flexibility has to be an element in this thing, particularly when you are talking about adding quality depth”, he said. “You can turn 53 men into 60 if you have good position flexibility and that is what we strive to have”.
The Steelers have a number of players who can do different things if asked this year, perhaps especially in the secondary. Projected starting nickel defender Mike Hilton, playing in the slot, is also capable of playing safety, which he did in the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday. First-year safety Kameron Kelly also saw time in the slot, as did rookie safety Dravon Askew-Henry.
Then there is Cameron Sutton, who may literally be capable of playing anywhere in the defensive backfield. He has already seen live in-game reps at both left and right outside cornerback, in the slot, and as the dimebacker, and he has taken practice reps at safety before. Steven Nelson is also inside-outside capable, and defensive coordinator Keith Butler has suggested that they will take advantage of that this year.
While he wouldn’t exactly suddenly become a wide receiver, Jaylen Samuels’ route-running and receiving ability will allow the Steelers to utilize some two-back, ’pony’ looks this year. They haven’t run it much this summer, but it’s in their bag to break out at any time. typically, James Conner will be in the backfield with Samuels in the slot or out wide.
Of course, position versatility is a must in the trenches for most. Matt Feiler, the projected right tackle, has logged time at every offensive line position in the preseason in recent years. B.J. Finney has started at all three interior positions. Rookies Fred Johnson and Derwin Gray have played everywhere but center.
Your defensive ends also have to be able to play that nickel defensive tackle role, as do your interior linemen, in this case Javon Hargrave, Daniel McCullers, and Isaiah Buggs. The ability of these players to perform in a diversity of assignments is critical without expanded rosters as the game continues to evolve into more specialized defensive packages, something of which Tomlin is well aware.