The Pittsburgh Steelers utilized several different players to patrol the slot when they were on defense on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, an offense that likes to spread the field and put the ball in the air. They played a few dozen snaps in dime defense, even, and featured, among other things, Minkah Fitzpatrick rolling down into the slot.
While this was partly by necessity because of the losses that they suffered this offseason, it was also specific to their opponent, and shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a blueprint for their strategy going forward, at least in terms of frequency of deployment.
“We did it by design”, head coach Mike Tomlin said yesterday when asked why they mixed their looks and personnel in the secondary so much against the Bills. “We just got that level of respect for Josh Allen and the continuity that they have”.
The Bills had one of the highest-scoring offenses in football a year ago, driven by their passing game. Allen attempted 572 passes in 2020, throwing for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns, which would be a Steelers franchise record. He took Buffalo to the AFC Championship Game, succumbing only to Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs.
Retaining nearly all of their starters but adding Emmanuel Sanders to the mix, whom they know well, the Steelers understood what they would need to do in order to get the better of this matchup, and part of that plan was to throw the kitchen sink at them.
“Not only to mix our calls, but to mix the utilization of people, I thought, would assist us”, Tomlin said of their strategy, “and when you have guys that are position-flexible, that have a nice skillset in that regard like Cam Sutton and Minkah [Fitzpatrick] and now Tre Norwood, it allows you to have some interchangeable parts and do some different things and add some complexities that hopefully keep the dogs off you”.
Norwood, the Steelers’ rookie seventh-round draft pick, logged several dozen snaps for the defense in his NFL debut, one of the bigger surprises in the game. He played more snaps in the slot than did anybody else, but he also spent time dropping back to safety to allow Fitzpatrick to slide down into the slot and provide them with a different look.
Not many teams are as pass-oriented as the Bills are, however—Allen attempted 51 passes on Sunday despite leading for much of the game—so this plan of attack is going to vary from opponent to opponent, and also within their own system as players potentially settle down into roles. At the end of the day, they’re just looking to go with what works, whenever it works.