Will The Steelers Use More Dime Or Big Nickel In 2013?

With more and more NFL teams drafting athletic tight ends these days, combined with more teams trying to incorporate spread style offenses, defenses are forced to combat this with more athletic players that can defend against it.

The Pittsburgh Steelers over the last several years have primarily used just two types of personnel groupings on defense. Those two groupings have been the base 3-4 and the nickel. The difference in personnel in those two groupings has been that the nose tackle comes out on passing downs in lieu of an extra cornerback.

While the Steelers have occasionally used the dime and the big nickel over the last two years, it was used very, very sparingly. In fact, last season, inside linebacker Larry Foote only came off of the field for a total of 18 defensive plays, according to my charting, and I believe that even two of those plays was a result of Foote being dinged up and thus he was replaced on the field by linebacker Brandon Johnson.

The Steelers more than likely drafted Sean Spence in the third round a year ago to serve as an immediate nicklebacker and future long-term starter inside, but of course the knee injury that he suffered in the preseason put a quick end to that happening. As a result of Spence\’s injury, the Steelers almost had no choice but to re-sign Foote this offseason.

Now, it is no secret that Foote is a liability in coverage, but the Steelers chose to address other positions early on in last month\’s draft instead of selecting a three-down linebacker. They didn\’t ignore the inside linebacker position altogether, however, as they drafted Florida State linebacker Vince Williams in the sixth-round. With Williams now in the fold, they will attempt to see if he has what it takes to be a three-down linebacker by the time the regular season rolls around.

While Williams, Stevenson Sylvester or even Marshall McFadden for that matter, try to prove that they have what it takes to become a starter or situational player on defense, the Steelers still have a few other options should they wish to implement more dime or big nickel looks in 2013. With nickel cornerback William Gay now back in Pittsburgh, Curtis Brown, who was primarily used in dime looks last season before all of the injuries hit the secondary, can presumably remain in his dimeback role moving forward, assuming of course he makes the team.

In addition to Brown, the Steelers drafted Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas and Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne last month. While neither of them are expected to see the field much in 2013 on defense in primary roles, it is not out the question that either one of them might just see the field as a sixth defensive back in either dime or big nickel looks. In fact, I think that this is exactly what defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has in store specifically for Thomas at some point during the upcoming season judging by his comments Lake made to the media following the selection of Thomas.

“He is very aware on the field,” Lake said following the Steelers selection of Thomas. Not only can he play safety, but he can also get up there and play man-to-man on the slot receiver. He has played nickel, and he has played corner at times. He is a very versatile defensive back.”

Lake didn\’t stop there when talking about the versatility of his fourth-round safety.

“The great thing about this young man is if you were in a pinch and you didn’t want to put the nickel package out there and you wanted him to play man-to-man on the slot, he could do it,” said Lake. “He has done it in big games already against some of the receivers that have been drafted in the first two rounds, and he shut them down. That is the kind of safety I like. That is the kind of safety that the Steelers are looking for.”

Even still, Lake wasn\’t done talking about the versatility of Thomas later on in his interview.

“He’s played so many positions for Syracuse,” said Lake. “So he hasn’t been pigeonholed in one position. He’s played multiple positions and what that tells me is the kid has some intelligence because you can’t just switch a guy from safety in a deep path to safety in the box to nickel-back to corner and him not knowing what he’s doing. So I like that flexibility that this kid has.”

Now, does this mean that Steelers would dare roll out Thomas against New England Patriots in order to cover tight end Rob Gronkowski? Because of Thomas\’ size, absolutely not, but they could kick starting outside cornerback Cortez Allen inside to cover him just like they did in the 2011 win over the Patriots. Thomas would then line up against a smaller slot receiver and Gay would come in and play outside in this version of a big nickel package.

While I am in no way going to compare Spence to Thomas from a height and weight standpoint, the two certainly posses the same skill sets when you watch their college tape. While many are focused on Foote, Williams, Sylvester and McFadden being three down linebackers, I\’m not so sure that the Steelers are very worried about that. If any of the last three can prove that they are, great, but if they can\’t, the Steelers have alternatives in the form of an extra defensive back.

So, will we see any of the dime or big nickel during the preseason? I kind of doubt it as LeBeau never usually tips his hand during those games. I do, however, feel like we will see much more of a third defensive personal grouping in 2013, primarily because offenses will dictate that they use it more.

  • Jefferson_St_Joe

    I won’t deny there has been some success with it, but 4 linebackers in the nickel should have been scrapped when Foote re-entered the picture. Foote just doesn’t have much to give on 3rd downs. Bring in the d-back and keep Polamalu closer to the box to confuse the QB Or maybe you have Jones, Woodley and Worilds all on the field to rush the passer.

  • Stephen Dale

    Unless the D-line generates more “push” at the LOS and the LB’s provide more sacks, other teams will continue to pick apart the secondary. It isn’t so much the scheme but the schemers that will improve the defense.

  • steeltown

    …we were talking about this in earlier posts.. I think that is the plan as well

  • hergieburbur

    Nice writeup, I think we will see more of this as well. And I absolutely agree that they drafted Spence in part to use him in these looks.

  • mokhkw

    Given how much teams pass in the NFL these days, I would say yes – until you look at our 2013 schedule. Packers, Patriots, Lions are pass heavy teams but we also face teams like Vikings, Ravens, Browns, Titans, Redskins, Bears, Bengals and maybe Chiefs ( if Reid has any sense) that are more run-heavy or balanced.

    At the end of the day it will depend who we are playing & how they try to attack our D.

    Will they pass with the loss of Lewis? Or will they try to run with the loss of Harrison & Hampton ( at this stage)? This is only the 2nd time in 20 years I’ve had doubts about our run D (1999 was the other) being top 5 & other teams could see this as a weakness to attack. No doubt our Run D has fallen off the past 2-3 seasons and maybe teams will see it that way as well.

  • Garrett Hunt

    Continue to pick apart the secondary? Didn’t they have the number one pass defense last year?

  • hergieburbur

    I agree we will likely see it against TE/multiple WR set teams like the Pats and Packers, and likely the Bengals now, as we used it successfully against the Pats in the past. But, I don’t think we will change our base look all that much, considering how the Browns and Ravens play, along with the rest of our schedule.

  • Alexander Sebastian Heath

    My major concern isn’t within who plays linebacker- its how we utilize our linebackers. As of right now we already have three read and react linebackers (Jones, Timmons, and Foote) who all make better play when they allow play to develop and then attack it rather than attacking the point of moment the ball is snapped like Lamaar Woodley.

    That’s why we have been surprisingly poor against strong running game but we do well against scrambling qbs/ read options that some teams start to employing. I hope this is a tale or indication of how we will change our front 7 by scheme and style. If you want to go back to traditional 3-4 where we have Buck, you either go with McFadden or draft one next season. We have great and good players on our roster but they aren’t being utilitized right.

    We need to allow our D-Linemen to pass-rush in order for our linebackers to play up toward their strength. As for our secondary, I have absolutely no concern as we are already terrific with much more upside to improve on. This secondary excites me!

  • steeltown

    ..and the year prior

  • StrengthOfVictory

    Achieving the #1 pass defense isn’t done by having the best corners batting down or intercepting the most passes (though solid corners and tight coverage are certainly needed). It’s done primarily by pressuring the opposing QB into making bad or ill-advised throws. If you take away a quarterback’s first and second option through coverage in the secondary…while also bringing pressure up front…then he’s left with either a checkdown to a RB for minimal yards, passing to his third (and less preferable) receiver, a high-risk throw to a primary receiver, or the trifecta of desperation: run it yourself, throw it away, or take a sack.

    If QBs have five, six, seven or more seconds to throw, receivers WILL get open…no matter how good your corners are. Steelers WRs playing in Ben’s backyard style prove this. The goal is taking away a quarterback’s Plan A, and hopefully also Plan B.

  • Nolrog

    And yet that defense generated very few turn overs, few scores and watched power house teams like the Oakland Raiders march down the field against them late in the game for the winning score, and allowed all time great QBs like Tim Tebow march us out of the playoffs.

  • HarryBackside

    What does one have to do with the other? Just because the secondary wasn’t generating turn overs says nothing about how they did in coverage. If anything had to do with the lack of turn overs in the secondary, it was the disappearance of the pass rush. Intercepttionsusualy happen because the QB or WR made a mistake. Without a pass rush to force the QB to get the balk out of his hand early, picks are harder to come by.

  • steeltown

    I understand the frustration with the Denver game.. but the Raiders game tells a different tail. We only allowed 202yds passing in that game and had an INT

    That game was decided by the pitiful 54yds rushing that our Offense amassed on that day

  • Nolrog

    We lost the game 34-31. While the rushing was poor, the defense still gave up a late TD to lose the game.

  • Nolrog

    I agree. All futher evidence that the defense didn’t play as well as that ranking.

  • steeltown

    Well, ok, technically two late FG’s that lost the game, but we also failed to score any pts on offense the entire 4th Qtr