Even though it was the Baltimore Ravens who were coming out of their bye, you may have noticed a little something different on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ side in the game yesterday, and in fact it came on both sides of the ball. On offense, they adopted more empty-set, four-receiver sets with no running back.
They got a little more adventurous on the other side of the ball, supplementing their 3-4 defense by removing a defensive back, particularly when facing 22 or 13 personnel, with another linebacker, in this case rookie edge defender Alex Highsmith. If I’m not mistaken, the player who came off the field alternated depending upon the alignment.
After the game, head coach Mike Tomlin indicated that this was a package that they worked in in order to account for the loss of Mike Hilton, their nickel defensive back, who is one of their top run defenders, particularly as they were set to face the top rushing offense in the league.
“Mike Hilton functions as a little linebacker, we talk about it often”, Tomlin told reporters after the game about the usage of the extra linebacker. “He has a unique skill set for his body type and the position that he plays. We were without him today, and we were playing a great running team, so it required an adjustment”.
A couple of the Steelers’ linebackers also commented on the usage of the five-linebacker package, including T.J. Watt, who was dominant yet again on the pass rush, and is credited with a game-high five quarterback hits.
“I think when you go against unique offenses, you have to do unique things on defense”, he said. “It was just another way to get another mobile player that can play the run and the pass, have more guys on their feet that protect the quarterback scrambles, and help in coverage and the run game as well”.
Added Highsmith himself, “it’s kind of be able to stop the pass and handle the run as well, so you know it’s definitely a good defense we put in this week. I feel like we executed it very well this week. We’ve got to get back to the film on Monday, make adjustments and get ready for next week”.
From the sounds of it, they don’t necessarily plan on this being a one-week phenomenon. That’s not particularly rare when it comes to teams with more than two edge defenders whom they believe are multiple and who may have a weakness at another position.
I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing the Steelers continue to selectively employ a five-linebacker look, or at least a sub-package with three outside linebackers on the field together. They could run a stunt with two of them on one side and still have an open rusher on the other, or work an edge stunt with Vince Williams.