The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: The 3-OLB sub-package will continue to be used even after Mike Hilton and other defenders return this season.
Explanation: The Steelers introduced a new wrinkle on Sunday against the Ravens that was at least partly a product of their loss of Mike Hilton for the game, as a key run defender. Alex Highsmith was used as a third outside linebacker, with one of the other edges playing off the ball, in place of one of the defensive backs.
This package is about more than just Mike Hilton not being there. You don’t create an entirely new sub-package just because your nickel cornerback isn’t in the game, especially when you have a backup nickel that you are really comfortable with like the Steelers do with Cameron Sutton.
This was about multiple things. For one, it was also an accommodation for the loss of Devin Bush, and that’s going to remain true long before Hilton gets back. It also adds to the pass-rush ability and variability, and gets an athletic and rangy, and large, young player on the field.
Highsmith played a career-high 25 snaps against the Ravens, and the majority of those snaps came in this sub-package with T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree also on the field, and with only three defensive backs in total on the field. 19 snaps, with mostly Terrell Edmunds but sometimes Steven Nelson coming off the field. Hilton wouldn’t be on the field in this package anyway.
But it probably wouldn’t have been used nearly as extensively in the game if not for Tyson Alualu’s injury on the first play of the game. Coupled with the loss of arguably the team’s two best run defenders, the Steelers tried to get creative, even if it didn’t work.
And it didn’t work. According to our charting, the Ravens averaged over five yards per rush on 14 carries against this front, including runs of 15 and 20 yards. As soon as these guys get back healthy, you’re not doing to see five linebackers on the field much except in the goal line defense. The addition of Avery Williamson could change their plans as well.