It seems the Steelers stumbled upon a defensive scheme that ended up working very well for them last season. The scheme is sometimes called nickel, and it’s where an extra defensive back is brought in at the expense of a front seven player. The interesting thing is how much Pittsburgh used it towards the end of last year, particularly against the Broncos in the playoffs . In that game, the Steelers used it throughout the game and were successful with it. Their version of the so called 2-4-5, had the Steelers removing the nose tackle to bring in the extra defensive back. Safety Robert Golden and corner Brandon Boykin saw much more action then they had normally been given.
The biggest drawback in this defensive alignment is it would lead a team to be vulnerable against the run. That didn’t seem to be the case against Denver though. Ronnie Hillman lead the Broncos in rushing with only 48 yards, and the team rushed for only 105 yards total. Of course Pittsburgh did play some base defense, mainly in the first half and on first down. The benefit to playing this way is it gives the team an opportunity to put their 4 best pass rushers on the field, while still having 5 defensive backs in coverage. Having Heyward and Tuitt attacking from the inside, and Jones and Dupree on the outside gives Pittsburgh a formidable pass rush. It also helps to mask the fact that Jones and Dupree have struggled to get pressure in the base 3-4. The real drawback for the Steelers was the fact that Heyward and Tuitt, became worn down by the 4th quarter. The duo played nearly every snap of the game. This may explain all the attention Pittsburgh gave to Baylor defensive tackle Andrew Billings. They had everyone at Billings’ pro day, and went as far as having Joe Greene take him to dinner to get to know him better. Drafting another stud lineman to rotate with Heyward and Tuitt would seem to be a priority if Pittsburgh plans to employ this defense.
It seems certain that we will see much more 2-4-5 from the Steelers this season. The team elected not to resign nose tackle Steve Mclendon, who was a big part of their 3-4 scheme. Add to that head coach Mike Tomlin being quoted recently saying that ” the nose tackle position is being minimized globally” which is coaches speak for we are not using a nose tackle much anymore. Going forward, the key to this defense will be how Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones develop their pass rush. They need to greatly improve their sack totals from last season, in which the two only managed 6 sacks between them. This new scheme may also be an opportunity for safety Shamarko Thomas to finally make an impact on the field. His physical tools seem a perfect fit given that he is a hard hitter to help support against the run, while still having the speed to be in coverage. Thomas could be an integral part of this new wrinkle on defense. The Steelers will also look to the draft to find players to fit this new system. Look for them to add another corner and safety in the first four rounds to go along with Billings or another tackle. If they can make the 2-4-5 work, Pittsburgh could be well on their way to another Super Bowl.