It’s not every day that you see a defense field five linebackers on the field at the same time, at least outside of goal-line and possibly select crucial short-yardage situations. But that is exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers did, and actually quite frequently (about a quarter of their defensive snaps) on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
Against about 80 offensive snaps for the Ravens, the Steelers countered with 19 snaps out of a 3-5-3 look, featuring Alex Highsmith as a third outside linebacker, taking either Terrell Edmunds or Steven Nelson off the field, and usually playing one of the other outside linebackers off the ball.
While Pittsburgh did allow two rushing plays of 15 yards or more, they generally did well defending the run against this look otherwise, posting a decent defensive success rate. It was also the package in which Highsmith nabbed his interception, so there is that.
Head coach Mike Tomlin was asked to evaluate the performance of this package that they unveiled against the Ravens, and he did so, while also going deeper into the philosophy behind deploying it in the first place, more at length than he did post-game.
“I thought it got the job done. It was situation specific, but to be completely honest with you, it probably had to do more with the lack of Mike Hilton than it did anything at the linebacker position”, he told reporters in a pretty straightforward answer.
“When we get in our sub-package football, Mike is a unique run defender for a guy that plays his position”, he continued in discussing their nickel defender. “A lot of things that were going on in that game were in three wide receiver sets. They were in what you would globally refer to as ‘kings’. The lack of Mike Hilton was significant, so we did some things to try to level the playing field in that regard and that probably speaks more to his value than it does some of the things that were going on at the linebacker position in terms of lack of availability”.
The Steelers were in just their second full game since Devin Bush was lost for the season due to a torn ACL. In addition to that, backup linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III was not available for the game due to injury, which resulted in Marcus Allen being the only depth player left at the position, and he did play late in the game.
But Tomlin’s remarks indicate that the package was more due to Hilton’s absence than the lack of depth at linebacker. Frankly, it strikes me as…intriguing, because they didn’t just stay in base, they actually took an extra defensive back off the field.
I’m not really sure how the loss of your fifth defensive back entails that you accommodate for the loss by employing a three-defensive-back look, but that’s what Tomlin’s saying, and would appear to indicate that we may not see it much once Hilton does return.