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.