Pittsburgh Steelers Struggling to Find Answers with Nickel Defense

Curt PopejoyContributor ISeptember 1, 2014

Aug 21, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles running back Henry Josey (34) is stopped by Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (95) at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles defeated the Steelers, 31-21.  Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

An area of emphasis for the Pittsburgh Steelers this preseason has been its personnel groupings, in particular in their nickel set. This is always a problem when a team runs a base 3-4 defense as the Steelers do.

The intent of the 3-4 defense is to provide flexibility within the defensive schemes and allow players to be successful in multiple roles. On paper and in theory this is ideal.

However, in the second half of the 2013 season, and thus far in the 2014 preseason, things have not gone as planned. The Steelers have worked extensively with their nickel sets, but the results have been far from ideal. Here are a couple of tweets from James Wexell of scout.com that highlight some concerning numbers: 

Steelers' nickel on for 70 percent of 1st-team preseason snaps and allowing 7.3 yards per carry. http://t.co/UVQnDMARxw (members)

— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) August 25, 2014


Vs. Giants and Eagles, Steelers' nickel on field 82 percent of 1st-team snaps. Bills used a fullback & looking at 2-14 season.

— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) August 25, 2014

Let’s take a closer look at what this new base defense looks like and talk a little about a slight wrinkle the Steelers toyed with in the final preseason game that might make it all better.

The image below is from the Steelers’ third preseason game of this season. This is the traditional nickel look everyone is used to seeing. You can see that the defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward have slid inside to play undersized defensive tackles, and the outside linebackers Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds have slid down to play defense end.

NFL Preseason

In addition, safety Troy Polamalu has crept up into the box as a hybrid linebacker/safety. Now, consider that this is only 2nd-and-5, a moderate down and distance. Ideally, the Steelers would like to stay in base here. But the Eagles bring out three wide receivers and dictate what the Steelers must do. 

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 29:  Cameron Heyward #97 of the Pittsburgh Steelers kneels after sacking Jason Campbell #17 of the Cleveland Browns during the game at Heinz Field on December 29, 2013 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Steelers defeated the Brown
Karl Walter/Getty Images

Once the Steelers go small on defense, the Eagles make it easy with a power run play to the left for 15 yards. This sort of success is assisted by the fact that the Steelers defensive front on that play went 245 pounds, 288 pounds, 303 pounds and 262 pounds. Not terrible, but when you add in Polamalu in the box at only 207 pounds, the problem is exacerbated.

If all it takes to pull the Steelers out of their strength on defense is a third wide receiver, it is going to be a long season. It will be a constant guessing game for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and his staff: Play the nickel and hope the opposition throws it, or stay in base and pray they don’t?

When the Steelers made all these offseason moves, including drafting uber-athletic linebacker Ryan Shazier, I always assumed the intent was to keep them in base more.

I took to twitter and hypothesized what I thought was a better defensive line for the nickel defense. More of a “big” nickel. 

The #Steelers nickel front so small. Could be huge. Heyward, cam Thomas, mccullers and worilds would be better against the run.

— Curt Popejoy (@NFLdraftboard) August 27, 2014

Defensive tackles Cam Thomas and Daniel McCullers alone would be about a Diet Coke away from 700 pounds. This kind of beef in the middle and keeping Heyward on the edge would give teams pause before trying to run right at them. Then with linebacker Jason Worilds on the edge, the threat to rush the passer is still there.

Pittsburgh appeared to be of the same mind with all this as it went into their final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers. Forgive me for the image, as the NFL preseason live game didn’t give a good pre-snap look.

NFL Preseason

In this case, the Panthers have once again come out with three wide receivers and the Steelers counter with their nickel set. But this time, it is with a twist.

The Steelers defensive line consisted of Brett Keisel and Stephon Tuitt at defensive end, along with Cam Thomas and Steve McLendon at defensive tackle. Rather than a long run, the Steelers defense stacked everything up for no gain. 

What is the answer? It will all come down to situational football. The problem is it seems as if the Steelers have all but given up on the 3-4 base defense and are fully committed to a new scheme on some level.

Let’s just hope that this bigger front will stick and can add a little physicality to an undersized unit.