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The Steeler defense can return to dominance, but only with change

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Was Mike Tomlin right that the days of the Steel Curtain are over? How can the Steelers adapt to the spread passing game in the NFL?

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

"The game of football is ever-changing. The days of the Steel Curtain are gone."

-Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin

You wonder if Mike Tomlin might have said the same thing had the Steelers not been watching their defense slowly deteriorate from 1st in the Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings in 2010 to 7th, 13th, 19th and finally 30th in 2014. The change in the league towards emphasizing more spread formations and an evolving passing game has clashed terribly with the Steelers' aging personnel and traditional emphasis on stuffing the run.

The 3-4 defense featuring Dick LeBeau's zone blitz was once a dreaded tool for handling NFL passing attacks, relying on versatile linebackers at every position, including outside linebackers that could drop into coverage or blitz the edge with fury. The Steelers also mixed in strong safety Troy Polamalu, a terrifying blitzer and eraser who darted all over the place before the snap only to appear in the most inopportune locations for the offense.

Opposing quarterbacks struggled to cleanly read the field, offensive lines struggled to pick up pass-rushers and the Steelers attacked people and put them on their heels.

But Polamalu has been getting older, and his fellow defensive backs have been worse and worse at allowing him to freewheel around the line of scrimmage rather than supporting them on the back end. Their outside linebackers, generally prized in part for their pass-rushing, could no longer also be expected to hold up in coverage against the slot receivers and tight ends now dominating the league.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh had the league's number two offense by DVOA, hinting at a possible future in which the emphasis in Steeler country is on scoring rather than shutting down foes. Perhaps Dick LeBeau realized these trends when he abandoned his post and left the coordination of the once proud Steel Curtain tradition to linebacker coach and long-time assistant Keith Butler.

So what's next for Pittsburgh? Is the tradition really dead? Can their fire zone-heavy 3-4 attack still dominate the league as it once did? Or are a few key changes and personnel upgrades all that's needed to start getting after people once more?

Steeler defensive identity

What often gets teams into trouble schematically is when they fail to adjust the tactics they use to reach their philosophical identity. The Steelers philosophy is to attack and create confusion at the line of scrimmage with versatile, aggressive players at linebacker, sturdy DL who can anchor the point of attack and a secondary that can keep the ball in front of them.

The fire zone blitz defines much of their approach, as well as the kinds of personnel they are looking for at multiple positions. For instance, the three-deep, three-under nature of the fire zone blitz means that the very similar cover 3 is their base coverage when they bring only four pass-rushers, although they've also dabbled in Tampa-2 since Tomlin arrived.

basic fire zone

In a fire zone defense, it's essential that the linebackers and safeties can drop into different spots on the field while the cornerbacks can stay on top of receivers on the outside without giving up big plays.

There are essentially just six positions on the field during a fire zone. The DL who are slanting into a gap, blitzers who are stunting after the quarterback, the outside seamer/force players watching the inside receivers, the shallow middle player who has to be ready to fill inside against the run, the deep middle player who's patrolling the deep seams and the deep sideline players.

Ideally, every player in the defense can fill multiple roles, although the corners are often just players you trust to lock down the sidelines, and the nose-tackle can be forgiven if he can't boast great coverage ability on top of being able to face double teams or slant into different gaps.

This scheme cannot be executed consistently anymore with a true 3-4 defense, as the outside linebackers who can beat offensive tackles with the pass rush and also drop and cover a Julian Edelman or Rob Gronkowski are virtually non-existent and certainly expensive.

That means that preserving the tactic that has defined the Steelers defense for so many years has to be tweaked with nickel packages that can achieve the same goals.

Adjusting to the nickel defense

The Steelers have utilized a few different nickel sub-packages due to an awareness of this truth, but their roster hasn't been truly rebuilt to reflect the reality of base nickel defense in the league today. Teams essentially have two main options for approaching the goals of the 3-4 fire zone defense with sub-packages. One is the 2-4-5 that works like this:

2-4-5

The Steelers utilized the 2-4-5 some in 2014, and their rivals, the Baltimore Ravens, did great damage to the Steelers with that package. Ideally, the personnel include:

-Two anchor defensive tackles who can swallow up space and battle double teams on the inside.

-Two outside pass-rushers who can drop into coverage some, but thrive primarily as weapons on the edge and in the pass-rush.

-Two traditional inside linebackers.

-A five-man secondary of any variety. The Ravens didn't have a particularly good one in 2014 and often played more conservative, 2-deep coverages than the Steelers like to play.

The other option is the 3-3-5, which requires slightly different personnel:

3-3-5 defense

Now you want the following types of players:

-A nose tackle who can command a double team in the middle.

-Two defensive ends who are athletic enough to stunt around, as well as strong enough to anchor against the run.

-Three highly versatile linebackers. All three need to be capable of playing coverage, blitzing the edge or interior and playing traditional run fits.

-Five defensive backs.

The Steelers prefer to play athletic and versatile linebackers, and happen to have more of them on the roster under contract right now than they do outside pass-rushers. Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier, and Jarvis Jones could be the foundation of a great 3-3 linebacker corp that's easily weaponized by new DC Butler, but this approach will require giving up on always having linebackers sitting on the edge as Joey Porter, James Harrison or Lamar Woodley once did in the 3-4 or 2-4-5 formations.

This approach also makes better use of the DL personnel the Steelers have on the roster than the 2-4-5 which only puts two true DL on the field. With a young roster -- including quality nose tackle Steve McClendon, big Cam Thomas and emerging defensive ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt -- the Steelers don't want more than a few sitting on the bench at any one time.

The missing pieces

The key to being able to play different varieties of cover 3 or the fire zone's three-deep, three-under coverage lies in the Steelers making key upgrades in the secondary.

Most essentially, they have to have cornerbacks who can be trusted to limit big passing plays on the outside. This isn't necessarily as hard as it sounds provided that their pass-rush approaches previous levels of excellence and the underneath coverage players can fill passing windows underneath. However, with long-time #1 corner Ike Taylor finally moving on, the Steelers need new blood at these spots.

The next important task is filling the nickel, strong safety and free safety positions with players who can replace linebackers in the box, run with tight ends or slot receivers in coverage, and blitz. The nickel and at least one of the safeties need to be good enough in coverage to run with a slot receiver in space, but the overall athleticism of the underneath coverage afforded by having such fast linebackers in Shazier and Timmons, along with five defensive backs on the field, make it easier to disguise weaknesses.

What the Steelers have really been missing in the modern era is a nickel who can allow them to keep linebackers and safeties in the box by being able to handle option routes in the middle of the field from the slot receiver:

Steeler nickel 3-3

In base defenses from the 3-3-5 with a great nickel, the strong safety could match-up with the tight end while the nickel takes on the slot receiver, both looking to re-direct routes inside to the linebackers and free safety. Jarvis Jones can line up as the outside linebacker across from the tight end who may often just blitz the edge but, thanks to his stacked alignment, can also blitz inside gaps.

Meanwhile on the blitz, the more versatile these three defensive backs in the middle are, the more options Pittsburgh will have for masking which players are playing which of the six fire zone roles.

While he's getting up in age, there's no doubt that Troy Polamalu is still an impact player at the strong safety position. They've also already invested serious money in safety Mike Mitchell, who was a disappointment in 2014-15 but might improve with more experience in the system.

That makes the nickel position the spot where the Steelers really need a big time playmaker to restore their defense. They need someone with legitimate coverage skills to go up against a slot, but with enough size and physicality to mix it up near the line of scrimmage as well. They aren't likely to find such a player in free agency, especially with much of their money currently tied up and Big Ben waiting for a contract extension.

Instead, they'll have to look to draft defense one more time. This time, instead of choosing a linebacker, they'll need to find the kind of player that allows classic linebackers to stay on the field and near the line of scrimmage where they belong. Do that, and Pittsburgh could find their old tradition and classic strategies coming to life once more.