The Pittsburgh Steelers recently broke out a three-outside-linebacker defensive sub-package, deploying T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Melvin Ingram all on the field at the same time. After the first game in which it was used, head coach Mike Tomlin was pretty clear in saying it had always been their intention to do that, but they hadn’t had an opportunity from a health and preparation standpoint to utilize it, due to injuries at the position.
Now that the team’s top three edge rushers are on the field and playing, expect the look to continue to be a staple sub-package in obvious pass-rushing situations, especially while defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, who has not yet officially begun to practice, remains unavailable.
“I think it’s effective for us as a defense, and the more that we practice and develop it, the more dangerous that it can be”, Watt said of the three-outside-linebacker package. “Just trying to find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback, and hopefully getting more pass rushers on the field can get that accomplished for us”.
The Steelers have used a 1-4-6 package, with one inside linebacker, three outside linebackers, and six defensive backs on the field, when they have employed the trio together. They ran it for nine snaps during Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos, all on third- and fourth-down plays, one being a no-play due to Highsmith (incorrectly) being penalized for a neutral zone infraction.
Of the eight plays run, all were passes, with six completions, though only one of the plays—a five-yard completion on 4th and 5—were successful. We have the defense blitzing on five of those plays, and generating two pressures, one by Ingram and one by Cameron Heyward.
Obviously, this is not going to be an every-down package. At least so far, it’s a look that they intend to employ only in very obvious passing situations, with their best coverage and rush options on the field. Will they continue to evolve it as the year progresses?
The Steelers ran a three-outside-linebacker package briefly last year while Mike Hilton was injured, with Watt, Bud Dupree, and Highsmith. They did not use that in a ‘dime’ defense with six defensive backs on the field, however; Tomlin’s stated reason for using that package was to gain size with the extra linebacker due to Hilton’s absence.
It will be interesting to see how much they tinker with this look. Could they use all three linebackers with both Heyward and Tuitt on the field, in a ‘nickel’ look with five defensive backs? Might they even run a ‘base’ look with only one inside linebacker, or only two down linemen? We’re only at the very beginning of their exploration, and as Watt said, the more they practice and develop it, the more dangerous it can be.