Yesterday, ESPN’s John Clayton took a look at how players in sub-packages are beginning to command more respect by front offices, even if many of them are not technically starters, and thus are getting paid more.
Of course, the fact that teams are employing sub-packages more and more frequently has a lot to do with this, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are no exception.
Last year, the Steelers spent more time in sub-packages than they did in their base defense—and the majority of that time was spent with six defensive backs on the field.
Clayton concluded his piece by looking at sub-package scenarios for five different teams that he believes will see improvement this season, including the Buccaneers, the Texans, the Raiders, the Rams, and the Redskins.
I think a case could be made that the Steelers’ sub-package play will improve this year as well, but I believe that we will see more traditional nickel deployments in 2014, as opposed to the frequently employed ‘quarters’ package.
The way it was run, in fact, the quarters package could be fairly called a ‘small nickel’, because safety Troy Polamalu frequently came up and played as a linebacker instead of a defensive back.
With the drafting of Ryan Shazier, the continued growth of Vince Williams, and the return of Sean Spence, I don’t expect to see Dick LeBeau calling upon six defensive back looks with nearly as much frequency this year.
So how exactly can we expect to see improvement from a sub-package that by and large returns the same pieces that struggled a year ago?
For starters, Cortez Allen should be expected to make a jump this year. He began his season a year ago bogged down by physical ailments, but he played well when he returned to the starting lineup late in the season.
That will allow William Gay to remain as the nickel back, where he was among the most reliable in the league last season, even though he performed admirably as a starter as well.
The one personnel change, of course, is new free safety Mike Mitchell, whose greatly superior range in comparison to Ryan Clark should help take some pressure off of the cornerbacks, and allow LeBeau to provide more help over the top for Ike Taylor this season.
And with Polamalu not asked to play linebacker as frequently, he can simply spend more time doing what he does best, as a roaming playmaker at all three levels.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the sub-packages that the Steelers present this year, however, is the sheer number of options that they can call upon as their fifth or sixth defensive back.
With Shamarko Thomas and Antwon Blake entering their second seasons with the team, and the additions of a veteran nickel back in Brice McCain and a tall bump-and-run corner in Shaquille Richardson—not to mention Will Allen, who was the primary dime back last year—LeBeau can really figure to mix and match depending on the situation if he so chooses.