Steelers Roster Cranks Secondary Up To 11 For First Time Under Tomlin

Perhaps I shouldn’t get ahead of myself, with potential further roster moves pending, but I was certainly not surprised to see that the Pittsburgh Steelers chose to keep 11 defensive backs on the initial 53-man roster.

The fact of that matter is that the Steelers spend more time with five defensive backs on the field than they do with four. The team had been trending that way for the past few years before being forced into it last year in part due to injuries and inexperience.

But as we saw this preseason, there’s little doubt that the team plans to continue heavily using five or more defensive backs on the field, and they’ve even been dabbling in trying to accommodate some of the smaller package’s shortcomings.

As we saw in the final preseason game, the Steelers broke out the big nickel on a few snaps throughout the game. With the first-team defense, they brought in Brett Keisel and Stephon Tuitt as defensive ends sandwiched around Steve McLendon and Cam Thomas in the interior as defensive tackles in a true four-man front.

In this package, the outside linebackers were taken off the field, leaving Ryan Shazier and Lawrence Timmons as the lone linebackers, though in a game situation, Troy Polamalu will likely frequently play in the box in these sets.

The flirtation with the big nickel only further validates the belief that the Steelers are serious about using a five-defensive back look as their base package going forward.

And accordingly, it’s not surprising that they chose to carry 11 defensive backs, which Mike Tomlin had never done before.

As I said earlier, however, this could change if Brice McCain’s groin injury proves sufficient enough to merit a trip to the Injured Reserve-Designated to Return List.

The addition of B.W. Webb off waivers two days ago changed the number balance, which saw the outside linebacker position take a hit as a result, with Terence Garvin serving as a swing inside-outside guy whose skill set leans inside.

If McCain goes on IR, then the Steelers would be back down to five cornerbacks, and Webb could theoretically go to the practice squad once he returns. But I don’t suspect that they would have claimed Webb if they didn’t intend to keep him. He was a player that they liked in the 2013 draft, and coaches and scouts don’t forget players they like, especially players from the head coach’s alma mater.

As a result of these roster moves, however, the Steelers now have a veritable smorgasbord of options to mix and match in sub-packages, with William Gay, Antwon Blake, Shamarko Thomas, Will Allen, Robert Golden, and Webb—and McCain once he’s healthy—all options for the role.

Of the list, all but Webb and McCain did play some on defense for the Steelers last year, and the aforementioned were not on the roster a year ago.

The addition of Webb adds a bit of height to a cornerback position that was suddenly lacking in it behind the starters. Allen, at 6’1”, is also an enticing height option in sub-packages in which a third safety is favorable. Blake has shown in spurts to be a good cover man with speed despite his size, and Thomas can be an impact player.

Not to mention, the back end will be very involved in special teams. Golden, Blake, and Thomas have become core special teams contributors over the past year, while McCain has been highly active in special teams units this offseason. Webb made four special teams tackles for the Dallas Cowboys last year and contributed heavily in college. Most of them will be getting a hat on game day.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

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

  • 2443scott

    so whos the guy backing up taylor this season ….reason shazier was brought in was to get troy back where he was but if they go with just 2 lbers will troy be again sneaked up to line to play a extra lber again ???…..if they plan on doing the nickel alot they got to come up and press these recievers on line and not 10 yards off it because once they get pass that 5 yards and you dont get them off there routes the flags will come from holding ….

  • Brendon Glad

    Here’s a bit of nit-picking at Steelers Special-teams…because, in general, they have caused me more pain than any other aspect of Steelers football in my lifetime…and a bulk of that is because they seem to have ZERO methods to their madness. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out a couple of things with regards to Special teams…if u have a “hang-time punter”, (ie Dan Stryzinski…Gardocki…and it appears Brad Wing)…then u can AFFORD for SIZE VS. SPEED on your special-teams roster-bubble. Because those same roster-bubble guys are going to be asked to BLOCK on the return units.

  • Brendon Glad

    We have an ELECTRIC man fielding punts for 2-3 years now (AB), and a new one on board (DA)…so here is pet-peeve number ONE: By gosh if u are going to double-team all gunners with “Quick and fast DB guys”…then get it done. It’s 2 on 1… I actuall wrote a letter to our special-teams coach a couple of years ago, suggesting that a more effective method of covering gunners would be to have one of our OLB’s covering the gunner (I suggested JH and LW) one-on-one to get a “jam” on the little-gunner…with a special teams DB roving 15 yards deep to “clean-up” on the “first free coverage man”. As opposed to that JOKE of 2 little DB’s on each side blowing the gunner-block…thus leaving six men to block 8 (punter not included)…on the rest of the field. But that letter must have died on a desk. And now…it looks like “coverage” is being picked over “returns” in the special-teams roster-bubble. OK…THEN GET A PUNTER WHO BANGS IT DEEP. PICK ONE…SHOW A PLAN FOR THE SPECIAL TEAmS UNITS FOR ONCE IN OUR LIVES!

  • johnhoien

    I know the big nickel was used… Great! But iit was entertaining to see big Dan in the 3/4 eating some RBs for a snack..really hope we can continue to stuff the run w/3 like we did against Carolina

  • Brendon Glad

    I don’t know…TP has been fantastic roving near the line and then also bluffing and going deep zone. Here is something…a ball-hawking FS who has range and ball-instincts…mike mitchell does not appear to be that. It’s weird. TP has the best FS instincts of all safeties he’s tandem-ed with…but is an excellent SS in the box…I’m no genius, but it seems to me that if u like TP doing his “in the box stuff” a lot, then a FS with great range and ball-skills would be the best partner. Or…let TP do a lot more of those deep-ball-hawking duties than he is asked to do. I’ve never understood that, even when the Steelers were SB’s. I’d love to see TP partnered with a ball-hawking FS once…especially now that the Ryan Clark “violent ball-separater” type of FS is soon to be a thing of the past with the rule changes

  • 2443scott

    you should of sent it registered then you would of known if they even got it …..and they prob put in on the i dont got time to read it pile am busy doodleing plays…

  • Brendon Glad

    haha. I didn’t really expect it to be listened to…but I know that it could NOT be worse than the pathetic “DB doubles-on-gunners-blocks” that happen OVER-AND-OVER…has AB EVER had 5 yards of space when he caught a punt….seriously. It drives a guy nuts.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    If you approach things from the standpoint of trying to get your best 11 on the field in the base who are they? How close can you come to using the best 11?

    I think there will be a lot of game to game adjustment at some point because so many guys can play in different spots but I’m not sure we’ll see much this year with so many new people.

    Tuitt, Heyward, Timmons, Shazier & Poly have to be in the base but after than I don’t feel strongly about anyone.

    When we get to linebackers I’m not sure which way to go. We need pressure on the QB or the defense fails. Maybe reducing the flexibility of the front 4 in exchange for more pass rush is something the times demand. Addressing the new passing tendancies means improving the passing defense. This doesn’t automatically mean you do something with your DB’s.

    I would probably start a line with Heyward & Tuitt

    Linebackers Worlds – Shaz – Jones – Timmons – Kiesel

    Backfield Allen – Poly – MItchell – Ike


    Couldn’t agree more John. I really don’t understand this sudden desire to use the ‘big nickel’ when last year people ran it down our throats when we were in it.
    Now the big nickel will be our ‘base’ defense? Makes no sense to me…
    What’s next, sitting Big Ben in favor of Landry Jones?!
    We need to get back to our traditional 3-4 and stop the run. Period.

  • William Weaver

    Shamarko could play lb in big nickel, or 4-3.. Depending on what you want to call it. Or spence/Garvin.

  • Rufus Benard

    Great we have 11 players in the secondary and minus the safeties none of them could even make any NFL roster but ours. This may be the worst Defense Pittsburgh has fielded in 20 years. They are expecting too much from JJ, Shazier, Tuitt and McCullers.

  • Rufus Benard

    Well said. Mitchell, our great off season signing doesn’t seem to be good at anything other than missing tackles and getting flagged. I love my Steelers but I call it the way I see it. The Steelers have two future Hall of Fame players on both sides of the ball. They have done a terrible job surrounding these men with players that can play. More so on the Defense side of the ball.

  • pat

    Spence would be ideal for that due to his coverage ability and speed if there was a fake punt we would be alright

  • pat

    Just imagine if we had lets say Ed Reed back there with Troy

  • pat

    Have to think if we would of cut ways with Woodley a yr b4 we could of possibly kept Lewis anyway Tommie Campbell is a tall fast CB that the Titans just released I would much rather have him over Webb. I do believe we target a top CB in FA next offseason no way we can expect a rookie (even a 1st round) to come in and start right away