After two straight seasons of equivalent wins and losses, it’s certainly no surprise that the front office of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been busier and more active than usual in their efforts to reshape a middling roster into a true competitor.
The past few months could be fairly described as a season of change amid the shifting fates of a franchise that had just been to the Super Bowl three times in the very recent past. It may well be that past success that has helped drag them down of late.
Of course, selecting late in the draft annually doesn’t help, nor do the big contracts going out to the players that helped you reach that success. But the true death knell has been an unwillingness to recognize when to let go.
The Steelers had hoped to hold together that championship core for a while longer, but the last two seasons have been the wake-up call necessary to introduce the wave of change that we’ve seen this offseason, designed to steer the organization back in the right direction.
Perhaps the biggest change that the Steelers went through during the 2013 season was the dramatic increase in the frequency with which they used sub-packages on defense, having spent more than half the time with extra defensive backs on the field.
This was a difficult proposition to undertake in 2012 with Ike Taylor being lost for the season with a leg injury, Troy Polamalu missing significant chunks of the season, and William Gay out in Arizona at the time.
The Steelers relied heavily on Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen to take them down the stretch last year, forcing the likes of Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, and Robert Golden into action, including a dreadful Cowboys game that Allen missed.
The injuries took on a whole different form last season. Instead, it was inside linebacker Larry Foote lost for the year due to injury, which eventually opened the gates for the reliance upon five and six defensive backs.
In fact, even early in the year when Allen missed time, the Steelers continued to use the dime and quarters packages, using Taylor, Gay, and Shamarko Thomas as the cornerbacks and Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Golden as the safeties.
By the end of the season, a stable rotation of Taylor, Allen, Gay, Polamalu, Clark, and Will Allen had been established, a group that helped turn in a 6-2 second half of the season.
The real question for this upcoming season is just how much the Steelers will use six defensive backs. It was partially birthed by necessity, and they don’t figure to have the same needs as they did last season.
Replacing Foote is, of course, rookie Ryan Shazier. Foote’s replacements last season—all three of them—are still in the mix with another year of experience under their belts. In addition, Sean Spence figures to be a contributor for the first time in a regular season after two years of rehab.
With the second line of defense far more insulated against injury in 2014, it doesn’t appear to be the case that the quarters package will be a necessity for the Steelers this season. After all, it was often a glorified nickel package with Polamalu playing linebacker.
But the fact that they gained so much experience, as well as success, with the package last season gives them an added advantage this year. They may not depend on it frequently this year, but it’s a weapon that will be at their disposal.