The Pittsburgh Steelers have now lost linebacker Larry Foote for the season to a torn biceps and according to head coach Mike Tomlin during his Tuesday press conference, Kion Wilson will now start the Monday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals in his place. Despite Wilson starting, however, it won’t be surprising to see him pulled out on sub packages.
In a Tuesday interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio, Tomlin hinted that could indeed be the case.
“It will provide an extra day for us to look at alternative defensive packages, particularly in some of our sub package stuff to neutralize a loss of a Larry Foote,” said Tomlin about having the extra day to prepare for the Bengals.
So why do the Steelers need new sub packages against the Bengals and what new sub package might they use?
For starters, the Bengals used two tight ends on 33-of-55 plays in their season opener against the Chicago Bears. They also used three tight ends on four other plays. Their two main tight ends, Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham both combined to catch 10 passes in the game for 82 yards and they were perfect too, as both were targeted five times each.
The Bengals like having the hybrid Eifert as they can move him around. They did just that against the Bears as he played on the line, in the slot and even out wide on a few plays. While not as versatile, Gresham certainly is no slouch and he can be moved around to some extent as well.
So why is this grouping of the Bengals tough for the Steelers to defend? For starters, if the Steelers play their base 3-4 against it, the Bengals will spread them out in a four-wide look and attempt to exploit a matchup. If the Steelers play their normal nickel against it, the Bengals will condense their formation and attempt to run if the right down and distance presents itself.
The best sub package defense for the Steelers to use against the Bengals hybrid offense is perhaps the big nickel package. In the case of the Steelers, they can pull off either their nose tackle or an inside linebacker and replace that player with a safety who can play the run as well as cover in the slot.
Keep in mind that cornerback Cortez Allen is currently dealing with an ankle injury this week and he certainly won’t be 100% if he plays Monday night. He is best slot cornerback the team has, so that adds yet another dilemma for the defense.
So who will the Steelers use if indeed they utilize some big nickel Monday night. Well, it should be either Shamarko Thomas or Robert Golden as both can play in the slot. Thomas, however, is the better run defender of the two and has a linebacker mentality.
The only problem with using Thomas is his 5-9 size and that could present a problem if he has to line up against the 6-6 Eifert in the slot. I’m not saying he can’t get the job done, but it should certainly be a battle to watch if indeed his number is called.
The Steelers don’t want to get into a situation where either Wilson or rookie Vince Williams have to cover a receiver or a tight end in the slot or a speedy running back such as Giovani Bernard out the backfield, so I will be surprised if we don’t see some big nickel Monday night in Cincinnati, especially if Allen isn’t able to play.