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.