Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is rarely forthcoming with information, so when there is a bit of information he’s willing to reveal, he sometimes takes a certain amount of glee in the frankness with which he reveals it. Such was the case when he told reporters yesterday that, yes, he was open to the idea of implementing a three-outside linebacker package this year.
The defense had remarkable success with their top three outside linebackers in the season opener this past Sunday, with T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Melvin Ingram all generating pressure at a consistent level. It may have only produced two sacks, but it drew a number of holding calls, and consistently put Bills quarterback Josh Allen ill at ease, so the edge rushers themselves welcome the idea of being on the field together.
“That’d be special. No matter where we are, if a package comes like that, I know it’s just gonna be special”, Highsmith told reporters earlier today after practice. “We did that last year with me, T.J., and Bud [Dupree] a couple games. If we do end up implementing that, it’s gonna be awesome, so I’m looking forward to that”.
The Steelers did run a package last year with three outside linebackers on the field together, during Highsmith’s rookie season, while Dupree was still here as a starter. In that case, however, they implemented it as a means of mitigating the absence of Mike Hilton as a physical slot presence in the nickel defense.
If they use it this year, it will be specifically to get three pass rushers on the field together who can execute at a high level, rather than to account for anything that might be going on in the secondary. All three have the football acuity to play whatever scheme is necessary to put all three on the field.
Watt, who recently signed a massive four-year, $112 million contract extension, led the group in snaps, pressures, and accounted for both sacks, while also forcing a fumble, now in his fifth season. Highsmith was drafted a year ago in the fifth round and served as the third edge until Dupree was injured late in the year and took over for the final five games.
With Dupree leaving in free agency, the front office explored its options in addressing the depth, and they ultimately came away with Ingram, a former three-time Pro Bowler, to add to the mix, signing him to a one-year, $4 million shortly before training camp opened.
All three of them looked to be more than capable of being full-time starters, but having them rotate will help to keep them all fresh. If the Steelers do indeed implement this three-outside linebacker package, it will certainly be interesting to see how extensively, and in what matter, it is deployed.