Towards the end of last season and into the playoffs the Steelers developed an effective new way to play defense. They started relying heavily on thier nickel package where they susbstitute an extra defensive back for a down lineman. It was very successful for them, and it gave us all hope for an improved defense in 2016. Seven weeks into the season teams have figured out ways to exploit this new scheme, and the results are not pretty. What the Dolphins did last week was very simple. They went to their three wide reciever set, putting the Steelers into nickel. They then proceeded to run the ball right down the Steelers throat to the tune of 222 yards rushing. Miami took advantage of there only being two defensive lineman in the game whenever they could. The Patriots took it a step further by forcing Lawrence Timmons to cover Julian Edelman just by the formations they were using, along with running rather ball very successfully. It’s time for the Pittsburgh coaching staff to adjust, or we can expect more of the same in the coming weeks.
One way the Steelers can combat teams running on them while they are in nickel is to go to a 3-3-5 system. Instead of pulling a lineman for a defensive back, they can take out one of the outside linebackers. For example, make Heyward and Jones the defensive ends and have Tuitt and Hargrave on the interior. This scheme essentially makes Cam Heyward an edge rusher , and let’s face it he may be the best pass rusher on the team anyway. It may also deter teams from trying to run on the Steelers when they do go nickel. With Keith Butler’s reluctance to rush more then four player at a time, this scheme would allow Pittsburgh to have their best four pass rushers on the field at the same time. The one drawback being they really couldn’t ask Heyward to drop into coverage like they do with either of the edge players now. It’s a small price to pay though to fix the problems facing this defense.
The NFL all about adjustments, and it’s time Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler did some of their own. It’s naive to think just gettin Cam Heyward back will fix all the defense’s problems. The Steelers must adjust to what teams have begun doing to them, or risk missing out on what should be a long playoff run.