Polamalu The Engine Driving Sub-Package Football For Steelers

By Matthew Marczi

As the season goes on, Dick LeBeau and the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to implement and deploy small-bodied sub-packages as their go-to defense, rather than the base, or even the nickel, as they had six defensive backs on the field nearly 75 percent of the time against the Baltimore Ravens.

Out of 65 total defensive snaps, rookie starting inside linebacker Vince Williams played just 18, a week after playing only 26 snaps, which was already a steep decline from them 43 (out of 52) snaps against the Minnesota Vikings.

On the other hand, nickel back Cortez Allen logged 51 snaps in this contest, while defensive back Shamarko Thomas played a career-high 50 snaps, with both having strong afternoons. Out of the starting secondary, only William Gay ever came off the field, as he was on the sidelines for three snaps.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that the prevalence of the dime and quarter package has really blossomed over the past two games. It just so happens to coincide with the Steelers beginning to play with the lead and forcing their opponents to be one-dimensional more frequently.

In truth, however, the primary driving force behind the high number of sub-package snaps against the Ravens was Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco relying heavily on the no huddle offense, which prevented the Steelers from changing around their personnel as often as they would like.

In fact, nose tackle Steve McLendon played just 17 snaps, and as previously mentioned, Williams played just 18. Reserve lineman Al Woods did not even see the field for the first time all year.

The return of Gay and the rapid acclimation of Thomas into the defensive system has been key to allowing the Steelers to be able to match up to the increasingly spread out offenses, a transition that really began in earnest in 2010 when Allen was able to make an impact as a dime back in his rookie season.

More than that, however, the single biggest reason that these sub-packages are able to work against so many offensive looks—and thus be used with such frequency—is the versatility of Troy Polamalu and the fact that he is healthier than he has been since at least the 2010 season, when he just so happened to be named Defensive Player of the Year.

On a number of snaps, Polamalu plays the role of a roaming linebacker who can easily swing into coverage if the play calls for it. Polamalu plays the run about as well as any other safety in the league, and the Steelers are often at their best when they have the luxury of getting their All-Pro talent around the line of scrimmage. Adding additional defensive backs allows LeBeau and Polamalu to move around a great deal more, adding an extra layer of unpredictability for the quarterback to contemplate before the snap.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Xclewsive

    Troy hasn’t forced turnovers, but his play overall has been stellar. But what was mentioned about Shamarko is spot on to the point where Troy and Shamarko are interchangeable. Seen it last week those two switching between deep coverage to the slot.

  • steeltown

    Its really pretty brilliant, the League has become a passing League for the most part and having players like Willie Gay, Shark Thomas and C.Allen to go along with Troy and Ike Taylor basically neutralizes Teams when they spread out.. add the fact that all Steeler DB’s have to be sound tacklers even against the run and it allows you to play these sub packages more frequently with more success

  • Callentown

    Okay, just have to comment here. Love Troy, always will.

    Another game without a turnover. I don’t know if anyone else is seeing this, but when the ball is on the ground – such as after a lateral pass that may or may not be a lateral and the ball is on the ground, the Steelers players don’t even move.

    I watched several games this past weekend with players making wonderful rip plays and freeing the ball – but not the Steelers.

    They seem completely uninterested. This has to change. It has to.

    C’mon Mr. Lebeau…

  • Shannon Stephenson

    I have seen Troy try and get pressure while rushing the passer and fails miserably. I havent been fixated on exactly where he is playing on defense all the time but he hasn’t made many splash plays which could be because he is in this LB like position quite a bit.

  • Ken

    People that doubt Troy are just uneducated. If everyone played with his kind of intensity and courage we would be the best team NFL. It is that simple. Who else jumps a pile try to block a crucial extra point, knowing that if he guess its wrong it won’t hurt the team. Troy makes mistakes, but my gosh we are lucky to have him.

  • Douglas Andrews

    These sub packages are great but it would be nice if we could get teams off the field on 3rd downs. I like having Troy near the line of scrimmage just wish he could time those snap counts better. Says alot about Sharmarko as a player that he can log so many snaps being a rookie in our D.

  • Shea Fahr

    More importantly, Troy is being very violent with his hitting. The Raiders WRs should take notice of what he did to Doss coming across the middle on Sunday as well as the hit he put on the Jets WR along the sideline. They were legal hits too.

  • cencalsteeler

    We will probably see more of those small bodied sub packages Sunday. Troy might be able to spy more on Pryor to keep him at bay. We can’t let him run on us!

  • steeltown


  • Mike Carroll

    How about the play when Cortez knocked the ball as Flacco was throwing? I was watching in a bar without sound, but guessed the ruling was incomplete pass. Still, the Steeler in the area (Worilds?) did not rush to pick up what I thought could be a fumble. Either way, I agree the team needs to do some turnover drills as they almost never attack the ball itself and when it is loose they often lack awareness to pick it up regardless of what they think, or whistles being blown. I’ll put that on Tomlin as much, or even more than LeBeau.

    Hear what you’re saying about other teams, awesome plays all around the league. Chiefs and Seahawks have nearly 10X the takeaways we do. But, crazy as it sounds, it almost seems like the Steelers think turnovers are egregious mistakes that don’t belong in the game (offense or defense). Meanwhile the D is on pace to easily set the record for fewest takeaways in NFL history. They are on pace for 5 takeaways! The record for fewest in a season is 11 (and that was in the strike shortened season of 1982).

    I am Steeler fan that loves their defense, just as I know most Steeler fans pride themselves on the D. But, they are getting a huge pass on a major 3 year trend. People don’t seem to realize, but the defense has contributed more to their negative turnover margin than the offense this year.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Mike, you are absolutely right.
    The first thing is that when I saw that play live I jumped to my feet screaming “Fumble!” I can’t believe they were not pouncing on the ball. The Steelers used to play to the whistle and even after it. Once he had the ball, they could have challenged it and won the challenge for a turnover. If you don’t jump on the ball, you certainly can’t challenge. There is no way his arm was going forward!
    Next. Yes, Troy is playing great, but a few years ago they used to get pressure with fewer rushers allowing Troy to play centre field. With his quick change of direction and speed he was always able to get a few picks. There is no way he is going to get as many picks while playing as a virtual Linebacker. This is just one reason why they are not getting turnovers. A few exotic blitzes certainly would help.
    Bottom line is that I am pissed that they are not finishing plays better, hammering more, diving on loose balls. I want to see Steelers Defense!!!

  • charles

    These novelty defenses have proved interesting. Troy is playing a Jack Lambert role in a pass happy NFL. Experienced qbs Manning, Brady and Brees were reading off Troy. They cant do that very well with these secondary packages. These guys are showing good coverage and more than decent second level rush defenses. LeBeau is using his personnel well. If we can come up with a little more qb pressure, we could be seing a modern view of the classical steel curtain. And until we do, Flacco exposed a large bendability in our D….

  • I think part of the reason why we are seeing so many sub packages is the lack of depth at LB. Our secondary has been way better than I feared this year, and I think they are using Troy and Thomas to help cover for some of Williams’ shortcomings.

  • Riverstko

    I LOVE when our D plays with 3 safeties on the field at the same time. I wanted us to do this last season, I knew it would work. Troy RC Shark!