Preseason Opener Indicates Big Change In Steelers’ Defense


We are just going through the Pittsburgh Steelers’ preseason opening win over the New York Giants. As we’ve done for years now, we chart the Steelers’ offense and defense. I do the latter charting and found something very interesting from Friday’s game.

Here’s the short of it: On 32 of 53 snaps versus 11 personnel (3 WR sets) the Steelers remained in their base 3-4 defense. That’s something the defense hasn’t done to that degree under Keith Butler.

In 2015, the Steelers’ regular season defense remained in base versus “passing personnel” (mostly 11 personnel) just 2.6% of the time. There was a small bump last year to 6.4%. And in Game One against the Giants, that number showed a crazy spike up to 60.4%.

That wasn’t just after the starters left. In fact, the opposite. The stats skewed a bit at the end with the Giants in their hurry-up offense and the Steelers stayed in nickel. When the game was early/close, and the starters in, base was the dominant package.

But last year’s minor uptick did seem to indicate a change. And Friday, Butler may have knocked that door down against the Giants. I don’t expect the Steelers to actually play base that often all the time but it’s an idea that makes sense. For three reasons.


1. It’ll greatly improve the Steelers’ run defense. Obviously, in nickel, with the nose tackle removed, run defense becomes much more difficult. Your down linemen are more susceptible to getting doubled and the center is freer to get to the second level. In base, the Steelers allowed 3.5 YPC last year. In sub-package, that number spiked to 4.8. That’s something you gotta solve when you’re in nickel so often.

2. It gets Javon Hargrave on the field more often. Even recognizing Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt need a break, there still aren’t a lot of snaps available for Hargrave if you’re in base 25%. Staying in base gets that weapon on the field. And someone who can get after the passer. It’s a concept we wrote about last month.

3. Sean Davis can play the “slot.” Given his cornerback background in college and a little bit last year, he can play over the #2 receiver inside. Now that he has a year under his belt, it’s less of an issue asking him to wear another hat. And when you consider the benefits of #1 and #2, it’s worth that tradeoff.

It’s something we’ll certainly monitor throughout the rest of the preseason, especially the all-important tune-up game in Week 3. If the Steelers can bump their usage to about double that of last year, to around 14-15%, they’ll be better off for it.

About the Author

Alex Kozora
Full-time blogger from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • Shannon Stephenson

    I think the success of the base defense honestly lies with VW as he is the most vulnerable in pass defense IMO.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    disagree id say watt and dupree.

  • capehouse

    In theory, Sean Davis can play the slot. In reality, he couldn’t play it too well last year. It’d be nice to stay in base because of your first 2 reasons, but with VW and Dupree suspect in coverage, and no offseason additions to the secondary to address the issues in the slot, or really the entire secondary, at least any that will bear fruit anytime soon, then I just don’t understand how this would be possible when facing a semi competent QB. The Giants QBs, Josh Johnson and Geno Smith, do not fit that criteria.

  • SilverSteel

    It is sounding like Dupree is not good at coverage from the camp notes. VW and TM have proven otherwise. Dupree has the speed so I believe he can improve but we still have some work to do.

  • will

    Show us the stats that VW is suspect in coverage. I believe that perspective is a myth.

  • Rob H

    With the way people have been yelling for better interior pressure, and more aggressive coverage, I actually find it puzzling that anyone would balk about this idea. I’ve been hoping for it for years, but we really did lack the depth and talent on the D-line to implement it regularly until now, the two lineman crap should be saved for primarily being used in the dime.
    Also, for people who think this automatically means you’re keeping Willams in coverage more often RELAX, just because you keep three lineman on the field more often doesn’t mean you can’t change the coverage in the back seven, quite the opposite, there is a ton of different personnel groupings and coverages you can run out of it. I’ll be thrilled if this is a sign of things to come!!

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Whether we are in base or nickel those two will most likely be on the field but VW I would assume would not be due to his average to below average coverage skills so that is why I chose VW on the fact that he is the interchangeable guy in those defenses

  • falconsaftey43

    I would love to see this happen. Situational run defense was a much bigger problem last year than pass defense (rankings vs rest of league were much worse).

  • capehouse

    Show me the stats that he isn’t.

  • Jaybird

    Wasn’t it a bit overrated about how bad Gay was in the Slot. Plus Sensabaugh and Sutton can’t be any worse than last year with Davis. And maybe Hilton can keep up his great camp and contribute there in the regular season as well.

  • falconsaftey43

    Well if you don’t like their slot CB options, this would be a good thing since the slot CB would be on the field less.

  • Faith

    if we ever want to beat the Patriots in a game that matters we have to use our pas rushers to rush the passer , pressure is key , do not have to get a ton sacks but have to make Brady move his feet and get hits on him …. and you have to be able to cover , no big cushions he will dink and dunk you to submission , the key is pressure but pressure not only on Brady but on the Receivers too

  • capehouse

    I mean we’re talking about Davis in the slot, so he’d be the slot CB.

  • capehouse

    Yeah I definitely think calling Gay bad is overrated, but our issues in the secondary were real, wether they were personnel or scheme based.

  • mem359

    Or maybe it is the preseason.
    Even if they dialed up some blitzes, they tend to stay vanilla, or in this case, stay with the base defense.

    I’d be curious if the % use of 3-4 stayed the same regardless of the offensive formation.

  • Alex Kozora

    That’s not how burden of proof works.

  • Alex Kozora

    They really weren’t all too vanilla though. And we’re just responding to personnel groupings. It’s the most vanilla thing ever.

  • falconsaftey43

    No we are not. We’re talking about staying in base defense more often (most notably against 11 personnel). Sean Davis will be the SS with the ability to drop down and play over the slot when the offense goes 11 and you want to have the SS cover the slot not one of the OLBs. Point is, it doesn’t matter who they would have brought in to be the slot CB because he wouldn’t be on the field in this situation. Base defense, only 4 DBs on the field.

  • Steve Johnson

    If memory serves me right, it was Mike Tomlin’s idea to play more Nickel & more Tampa 2. Maybe they plan to return to their roots in 2018 with more emphasis of playing man-to-man.

  • Big White

    No, no no. Don’t get reeled into this fantasy. Butler is a creature of habit. He may try some different things in pre-season, but when things get tight in November he’ll revert to his comfort “zone”.

  • Rob H

    Agreed, but just because there are 3 lineman doesn’t mean it has to be a strict base 3-4 look, and you could, of course, use any combination of personnel you wanted.
    I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, and paste something a poster who is really good at film stuff said at another board I frequent, just because he does a better job explaining it, and it’s easier :)…

    “Lot of 43 looks last night, with either Heyward or Tuitt as DEs. And I’ll have to go back and look but it seemed a number of times they rolled a DB late to a complete a 43 look as a Will backer in nickel. Similar to that moneybacker role we’ve seen in the past, but this was in nickel iirc and not long yardage situations. Didn’t use that much nickel last night, less than half by my inaccurate perception. Mostly base, and split between 34 Under and 43 over”

    Mostly just corroborates what you’re saying, but it seems like some are equating it to running the same look and players all the time, just more often

  • Michael Mosgrove

    vince williams coverage ability is severely underrated.

  • Joeybaggadonuts

    Preseason is the so called lab of sorts…it’s play time for the professors to see what they have confidence in. If the Stillers can get pressure from the base D by bringing only 1 Lb both run and pass D will greatly improve. That’s where different blitz packages can be used coming from anywhere and keeping opposing O’s and QB’s guessing. The blitz packages of recent have been soooo predictable. Any team, Pats included included can be beat with a consistent 4 man rush.

  • capehouse

    It was a rhetorical response by me. It’s ridiculous to ask me if I have stats showing that Vince Williams is bad in coverage. I’m a commenter. I don’t have a log of stats in my back pocket. It’s my opinion and one that’s shared with many that’ve watched VW play throughout the years. Vince Williams is not a coverage LB.

    As far as stats, I googled and found this from PFF going into last year. “Williams was solid in 196 snaps in 2015, as he missed just two tackles while producing 13 stops. However, he did allow 14 of the 15 passes into his coverage to be completed (with one pass defensed), with 60 yards after the catch.” 14 of 15 doesn’t sound too good.

  • Joeybaggadonuts

    SD can play slot but you weaken 2 positions…IMHO. The question becomes, is your 3rd CB better than your 3rd safety or vice versa. It depends on field position and game situation…i would guess.

  • Joeybaggadonuts

    Nicely played!

  • Steve Johnson

    I agree. You know, he might just be the unknown player that makes the Defense better in 2017. I like that hit he put on that TE.

  • capehouse

    “Sean Davis can play the “slot.””.

    That’s what Alex wrote right in the article above, and it’s what I’m commenting about, so yes it is. If it’s 11 personnel and we’re playing 34 defense, then Davis will most likely be playing in the slot.

  • Joeybaggadonuts

    If you think about it, the slot is probably the hardest of the CB positions. You can’t use the sideline for leverage and the slot WR has more room to operate…I believe Will G’s stats were pretty good last year considering the pass rush was sub par even though sacks were up.

  • falconsaftey43

    You’re missing the point. Them not upgrading the slot CB doesn’t matter in this instance because he’s not on the field. You have two outside CBs, and two safeties on the field.

  • falconsaftey43

    Yes you could use 3-3-5 or something like that, but they didn’t. They used 3-4 base and they used nickle personnel 2-4-5 mostly. They did mix in more of their over/under fronts it seemed.

  • Joeybaggadonuts

    SPOT ON. 3DL 3LB 5 DB press man under zone deep takes away the timing of a west coast type O and gives a strong run presence.

  • capehouse

    No you’re adding a point I didn’t make. If you notice my original comment I said issues in the slot, not issues with THE slot CB. In the 34 defense Sean Davis would essentially be covering the slot. I’m saying that’s probably not a great option.

  • ryan72384

    I’m all for anything keeping Hargrave on the field. Our DLine should wreak havoc with those 3 up front. 3rd and long no run threat at all though I’m taking VW and Hargrave off the field. I’m bringing Bud Tuitt Cam Harrison and Watt everytime with 5 Dbs and Shazier behind them. 3rd and long is the only time I would leave base. If someone wants to spread them out get up play man rush 4. Rush Bud Tuitt Cam and Harrison/Watt every play. Rotate Hargrave in when Tuitt and Cam need a breather. I would never rush 3. I hate when they rush 3 it is always a gift first down on third and long plays. Bud and Harrison should never drop into coverage ever. That’s another thing I hate seeing is our best passrushers chasing wide receivers and tight ends.

  • RickM

    It’s not a myth. Matthew mentioned before that VW has never been officially accredited with a single “pass defended” in the NFL. In 2013, Vince’s most prolific year, he played 15 games and had 53 combined tackles, but he did not have a single pass recorded as “defended”. Timmons who played 16 games had 5 passes defended.

    Questions about Williams’ coverage abilities are not a myth. It really is something that will bear watching.

  • falconsaftey43

    “no offseason additions to the secondary to address the issues in the slot” I took that as you wanting them to add players in the secondary to address the issues in the slot, such as drafting a new slot CB or a dime safety. The only way that would have affected how they cover the slot in base is if they replaced one of the starting safeties. Sorry if I miss understood your point.

  • StolenUpVotes

    That season the team pulled him off the field altogether in most passing situations

  • falconsaftey43

    Stats are hard to use with coverage, because they by nature leave out the defenders best plays, ones where there was good coverage so the QB didn’t throw the ball there. Doesn’t mean Williams can or can’t cover, I just wanted to point it out.

  • RickM

    Which indicates the team felt he would be a liability. I don’t know if VW will be a liability or not. He has more experience now than 2013 and that will help him. But I know that teams will attack him on 1st and 2nd down sometimes if he is.

    I’m taking a wait and see approach on this because I think it’s the fairest approach. But I think suggesting there is nothing in his background to suggest he may be a liability is simply wrong.

  • capehouse

    Yeah I wasn’t necessarily talking about adding a slot CB. My favorite option in the offseason would’ve been to add a player like Budda Baker in the draft. It would’ve given us that nickelback/dimeback to cover the slot. That means less Hargrave but better run support and he could’ve taken over for Mitchell in a year or two. We’ve also been linked to a few #1 CBs this offseason, most recently the guy from the Rams. I would think have a “shutdown” CB to pair with Burns might allow more freedom with coverage in the 34 much like the Broncos have had the last couple of years. We could’ve also added a MLB like Hightower who could’ve helped cover the slot better than our current options. And sure we could’ve added a slot CB too. All I know is that when opposing offenses line up with 11 personnel or even 2 WRs to one side of the field, we have issues covering the slot.

  • RickM

    I think once you have started 17 games and played parts of others that there is enough data to make reasonable assumptions. I don’t know if Stolen is right that he was taken out in passing situations in 2013 or not. If he’s right, then clearly the team feels his coverage abilities were not the best at that time, much like they did with Timmons in 2015.

    My issue is simply with the statement that it’s a myth he can’t cover. Statistical evidence and the vast likelihood that the team will take him out in 2017 passing situations suggests otherwise. It is not a made-up concern.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    Alex –

    This article is one of the most insightful and important topics you’ve posted all year. A number of years ago the Steelers finally realized that their 3-4 base defense was really only designed to stop “running” teams, and it had huge glaring weaknesses against “passing” teams (who frequently lined up in 3-4 WR sets).

    Taking Casey Hampton off the field and going “sub” package didn’t really have that much of an effect because our two DE’s didn’t have the skill sets to rush the passer, so our front 4 got blocked very easily and left our secondary hanging out to dry.

    In an effort to combat this problem, we drafted Heyward and Tuitt (in early rounds) who, in theory, could play both DE in base and DT in sub. But this proved only moderate results. Neither one was an elite pass rusher, and teams (like the Patriots) would simply check down to a run play, double team one of our DE’s, and run behind the double team block, having their second OL peel off and take out our ILB. That’s why our run D looked so horrific since Tomlin took over.

    Drafting Hargrave has changed everything. Staying in 3-4 base with a “penetrating” NT (against passing sets) forces the double team inside (like Hampton used to do) which allows either Tuitt or Heyward to rush 1-on-1. This quick interior pressure forces the QB to throw EARLY. And that is the key to this scheme.

    Our LB’s or Safeties are able to cover shorter/quicker routes (from that 3rd receiver) a heck of a lot easier than a deep route down the field. And if our CB’s are in man press (like we are supposedly going to be doing this year) that prevents the QB from throwing a quick, unobstructed, 2 yard pass, and it also dissuades him from checking down to a run play because we’ve got 3 dual threat DL ready to tackle.

    But the biggest hidden advantage is that it allows Shazier and Davis to really shine. in Either one is fast enough to cover the 3rd WR, or blitz from the slot, or tackle the run if they check down. No more “gimme’s” to the opposing offense. They have to earn it with deeper throws down the field.

    I welcome this strategy because it forces QB’s to hold the ball longer. Even if they hit us with some deep passes, we are going to hit them with some sacks. And I will take that every time. Sacks cause fumbles, and interceptions, but more importantly they cause QB’s to start rushing throws. And that can be just as effective as a sack.

    Now I just pray none of our front 3 DL gets hurt.

  • StolenUpVotes

    I was agreeing with you

  • RickM

    Should have realized that. My bad.

  • dany

    So it’s a lot about Mitchell playing deep perfectly if SeanDavis rolls down to the 3rd receiver. Hope he’s ready for it, it made Clark special in Pittsburgh

  • Dshoff

    HA HA!!

  • Alex Kozora

    Thanks man. Well explained. We will keep an eye on if it continues, or how much, going forward.

  • Wayne’O

    Nice observation. I hate that stupid 4-2 nickel that the Steeler’s seem to live in. Glad to see the coaching staff is making adjustments.

  • Dshoff

    I’m starting to wonder if maybe Hargrave is going to be our best DL pass rusher. I love the idea of keeping the 3 DL guys on the field. They can all rush the passer so they can defend the pass and the run at the same time. The biggest thing is that there are PLENTY of options to rush the passer. Now Butler, don’t get chicken sh*& and get scared to use the blitz. I hate that. Make the QB THINK!!

  • Wayne’O

    Really nice break down. I agree with you 100%. Looks like things have come full circle for the D. Glad to see that they are looking to make changes!

  • Uncle Rico.

    They did run a lot of 43 Over looks with either Cam or Tuitt as a 43 down DE and the opposite side OLB as the other DE but standing. I didn’t track it, but watching live I estimated the heavy use of base at or more than half, and that base split between 34 and 43 Over. Worth monitoring going forward, but off that I’m not sure it signaled a change or just getting the young guys acclimated to foundational schemes. Watt and Allen did play most of the game and did lead all defenders in snaps. Look at Dobbs on the other side of the ball and how much time he spent under center. Dobbs almost never played under center at Tennessee, and I’d guess 70% or more of the Steelers offense is run from the gun. However, I don’t expect a sizeable uptick in the amount of plays from under center based on this game. Rather I just think they did it to get Dobbs comfortable and used to it because he needs to be, even if it is just 30% or less of their offense. Week one seemed like it was tailored for the kids.

    But it did seem to me that there an appreciable emphasis on reroutes and split-press coverages. And maybe playaction as well. Not sure though without going back for a rewatch.

  • Don

    I might usually agree with you, but it makes more sense to stay with 3 DL with current personnel. I loved Hargrave from the first time I saw his college highlights and wished so hard they would draft him. It was very apparent on Friday that the Steelers now have three excellent DL so it makes sense to take full advantage of that and keep them all onthe field as much as possible.

  • Don

    I think it has more to do with having three beasts on the DL

  • Shannon Stephenson

    I do not think it is as bad as what people thought when we drafted him but I feel he is still a tick or two below average.

  • Cwallace

    Man Alex I was just scrolling and I seen that article and I ain’t never clicked so quick in my life. This made my day. I agree with you on this 100%+and It plays to the tremendous strengths of each player and less confusion. We’ve
    been there before Let these cats play ball. Burns will OK in bump n run…let him get at these cats …Mitchel…well anyways this article a description of what I was telling my son they should do more of after the Afcc nightmare. Im coach T and I hope he reads this…let it go brother …that zone ….mix it up and get a top 5 defense. The offense your insurance policy …GoSteelers

  • Cwallace

    Can I vote you get the best post…spot on! Heck almost all the responses to this article are thought provoking …this one smart Naion

  • Alex Kozora

    Yes. One downside is that it may limit coverage options.

  • RickM

    I googled 2013 as well and he started 11 games after Foote’s bicep injury. 16 passes were directed VW’s way and 13 were completed for 74 yards and 42 yards after the catch. It’s amazing that some are denying this known, weaker part of his game. Guys inherit the starting role and history is re-written I guess. VW has strengths; pass coverage isn’t one of them.

  • Uncle Rico.

    For what it’s worth, VW came off in nickel and dime that year, and they dropped Polamalu down basically to the Mack spot. He was the original moneybacker. VW started a lot, but only ended up playing maybe 35-40% of the snaps. Tho the next year when VW and Spence were splitting the job, it was Spence being used in Base and VW in nickel.

  • Steve Johnson

    If they do, shame on Tomlin and Butler. Certain schemes simply do not work against Superior QB’s.

  • RickM

    Good info. I didn’t recall the 2013 situation (thanks), but yes I remember that Spence came downhill against the run really well in 2014, but he was very inconsistent in coverage.

  • LucasY59

    interesting obervation and it makes sense (but also might be more of a preseason thing where they dont want to “show” much so the keep the D “basic” but I could see them using the Base D more for a similar 3 reasons to Alex’s)

    versatility (and experience) of Davis is what makes this work the most (but at the same time there are times where it will be a bad idea to stick with the base in certain situations…like the times where Sean struggled as the slot player) I think in passing downs where a TE is moved out to the slot using Davis to cover should work well

    Hargrave’s talent also makes it so staying in base makes sense, interior pass rushing pressure will help the Defense (and like Alex said helps against the run as well)

    one more thing is the improving OLB group makes the base work better also, if both OLBs can drop in pass coverage well they can use a 4 man rush and have one of them help cover, and since it is hard for the O to know which one is going to drop it will be easier to disguise the scheme some as well

    one more idea would be to make a 3-3-5 sub package where a DB goes in for VW (or another crazy Idea since Watt is doing so well is swap him in for Vince and have 3 OLBs on the field at the same time) I really like switching things up and veratility where it will keep the opposition on its toes and guessing instead of trying to find and exploit weaknesess (and maybe the D can be the one that adjusts to exploit weaknesses of the O…instead of the opposite that has been happening in recent yrs)

  • Alex Kozora

    I know many have banged the table for 3-3-5 but I just don’t see it happening.

  • LucasY59

    yeah I know it wouldnt be used much, I would just like to see it as an option to stay versatile/multiple

  • nutty32

    Those numbers are helpful but w/o down, distance, & coverage info (context) it could mean anything or nothing.

  • nutty32

    Hope this becomes a trend. Will wait to see what happens with Bud available to play.

  • Brenton deed

    I presume Hargrave’s pass rushing ability has something to do with this. The 3-3-5 with Shazier as MLB and two dynamic pass rushing OLBs looks so attractive against Brady – IF you’ve got the right personnel.