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.