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2021 South Side Questions: Will Steelers Settle On One Nickel Defense?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 season is underway, and they are hoping for a better outcome in comparison to last season. After starting out 11-0, they finished the year 1-4 in the regular season, and then lost in the Wildcard Round to the Cleveland Browns, ignited by a 0-28 first quarter.

They have lost a large number of key players in the offseason, like Maurkice Pouncey, Bud Dupree, Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, Mike Hilton, and Steven Nelson, but they’ve also made significant additions as the months have gone on, notably Trai Turner, Melvin Ingram, Joe Schobert, and Ahkello Witherspoon. They also added Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Kendrick Green, and Dan Moore Jr., all of whom look to be in a starting role (or complementary role in Freiermuth’s case) for the season opener.

There isn’t much left to do but to play the games at this point. They have a 53-man roster, though it will always change to some degree. They still have a lot to figure out, though, such as what Matt Canada’s offense is going to look like in any given week, or how the new-look secondary and offensive line is going to play.

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked. There is rarely a concrete answer, but this is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all their uncertainty.

Question: Will the Steelers eventually settle on a ‘primary’ nickel defense?

The Steelers used several different combinations of defensive backs in different positions within their nickel defense in yesterday’s regular-season debut over the Buffalo Bills. Essentially, four different players played in the slot, with seven different defensive backs receiving playing time in all.

But that doesn’t mean that is the plan moving forward. There are multiple reasons that the Steelers could have taken that approach for this particular game, both because of the timing and because of the specific opponent.

The Bills are a team that passes a lot, and spreads the ball around a lot—though they only targeted six players on 51 attempts yesterday. But they dictate that you put defensive backs on the field, with Stefon Diggs, Emmanuel Sanders, and Cole Beasley their top three receivers.

The element of surprise, the lack of clarity on what they actually have in the secondary, and the matchup value of mixing and matching, all likely contributed to the variety of personnel groupings we saw yesterday.

The questions that remain for me are now, will we continue to see a diverse grouping of defensive backs in the nickel defense, how diverse will they be, and in what context? If there is one personnel grouping that stands out and starts to rise above the rest, is that the one they move forward with? Or will we continue to see a mixture of James Pierre, Tre Norwood, and Arthur Maulet?

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