By Matthew Marczi
With Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Larry Foote being lost for the season after suffering a ruptured bicep during the team’s opening week loss to the Tennessee Titans, do not be surprised if you see the team try out some creative solutions to fill in the gap as the season goes on.
Of course, this is going on nothing but certain comments made since the loss and the common sense of using the depth of talent at other positions to mask the deficiency in another area. As noted in Dave Bryan’s article yesterday, head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier this week that the Steelers will “look at alternative defensive packages, particularly in some of our sub package stuff to neutralize a loss of a Larry Foote”.
So what might those packages be?
In 2011, when the Steelers were without James Farrior and James Harrison during a bout with the New England Patriots, the team moved Lawrence Timmons to outside linebacker and started Stevenson Sylvester in Farrior’s place. Yet, despite starting, he played just 12 snaps.
Granted, much of that had to do with the opponent, but this is the game in which Dick LeBeau broke out the dime and the big nickel packages. Keenan Lewis played over 80 percent of the team’s snap as the nickel corner, and Cortez Allen and Ryan Mundy combined to play about the same percentage. In addition, Casey Hampton logged just 10 snaps.
Utilizing additional defensive backs will likely be done with even greater frequency this season than it has been due to the loss, although the possibility of being without Allen this week could limit that some.
But the Steelers have other options to get their best role players on the field as well by utilizing some rarely used subpackages.
Making rare appearances last season was a subpackage that saw the Steelers employ four down linemen in select situations, beginning in the game against the New York Jets. On five occasions during that game, the Steelers pulled a pair of linebackers in exchange for an extra defensive back, while also adding a lineman, for a 4-2-5 look.
Given the way that both Cameron Heyward and Al Woods have come on this past offseason, one would think that Dick LeBeau would be even more comfortable utilizing this package with five defensive linemen that he trusts. Woods played 10 snaps in the first game, while Heyward played 29.
That subpackage in particular is rather limited, however, and there is another appealing solution: you want to play all three outside linebackers? Put them all on the field at the same time.
This idea would actually work even better if Jarvis Jones does indeed start next week. When the Steelers want to rotate in Jason Worilds, they can simply move Jones inside, where he has had the majority of his success rushing the passer through the preseason and in the first game.
While the team rejected Jones’ suggestion to play him at inside linebacker, according to Jim Wexell, linebackers coach Keith Butler hinted during training camp about a package that gets all three outside linebackers on the field at the same time, and now that they are down an inside linebacker, they should have plenty of opportunities in pass rushing situations to do just that.