Tomlin Explains Benefit Of Three-Safety Packages

Damontae Kazee’s return could add another wrinkle to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. Likely to play for the first time this weekend, Kazee could become the Steelers’ third safety. It’s a package they leaned on in the preseason but scrapped once Kazee broke his arm in the finale and other defensive back injuries limited the schematic versatility the defense had.

Speaking at his weekly Tuesday press conference earlier today, Mike Tomlin outlined the benefits to putting three safeties on the field.

“In this era of specialization, particularly defensive specialization to match offensive personnel groupings is a big component,” he said via the team’s YouTube channel. “Three-safety defenses or big nickel, as a lot of people refer to it as, is one of the things that’s in vogue to combat two tight end personnel groups and particularly when one of those tight ends is a vertical upfield type and a guy that’s a wide receiver. So we’ve explored that some and it was an asset to us and it’s reasonable to expect us to continue in that vein.”

Pittsburgh’s three-safety package isn’t new with Kazee but it has expanded. In past years, such as 2021, it was a hyper-specialized package against one-receiver personnel, the Steelers removing a corner and putting a third safety like Miles Killebrew on the field. In the preseason with Kazee, the Steelers used it as a nickel variation, removing a nose tackle for a third safety. According to our charting, the Steelers employed that “big nickel” package Tomlin referenced seven snaps throughout the preseason.

It might not sound like a lot but six of those snaps came in the preseason finale, all with Kazee, clearly a package the team liked and was going to use in-season. While small sample sizes and preseason stats are dubious, excluding one kneeldown, opposing offenses averaged just 1.8 yards per play against the Steelers big nickel.

With Kazee out, there wasn’t a Steeler to fill the void. Killebrew is a pure special teamer who only plays when he has to or in obvious run situations like goal line personnel. Tre Norwood is smart and versatile but not the same tackler or run defender Kazee is, making him a worse option against multiple tight end sets. According to our charting, that “big nickel” was used against 12 personnel on five snaps.

How often Pittsburgh uses that package will depend on the opponent. Teams who rely on three-receiver sets will keep big nickel off the field while teams who use multiple tight ends will increase its usage. A team like Baltimore, with a top receiving threat like Mark Andrews, will have the Steelers responding plenty with Kazee. For this Sunday, the New Orleans Saints use a fair amount of multiple tight end sets while Taysom Hill is an offensive chess piece that may require Pittsburgh to get equally creative in defending him.

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