Steelers draft shows possible change in philosophy

Sep 5, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes defensive back Artie Burns (1) leaps over Bethune Cookman Wildcats defensive back Austin Walker (35) during the first half at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 5, 2015; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Hurricanes defensive back Artie Burns (1) leaps over Bethune Cookman Wildcats defensive back Austin Walker (35) during the first half at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been running a 3-4 defense since the early 1980’s, but looking at tape from 2015 and examining the defense-heavy draft class from 2016, there could be some changes happening in the near future.

Typically under former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers ran a 3-4 defense with corners playing a soft-zone cover three defense. In his first year as DC, Keith Butler mixed some things up. He would routinely work in 4-3 concepts, rotating one of their outside linebackers to play a standup end, and sliding an end inside to a three-technique.

With the retirements of Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, Butler switched to a cover-2 look with safeties Mike Mitchell and Will Allen splitting the field. This change caused some failures in communication early in the season, but near the end, the defense began clicking. The simplified defensive scheme, as well as an increase in blitzing led to higher turnover and sack numbers than previous seasons, and a run defense that ranked 5th in the league.

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The 2016 draft netted the Steelers 7 players, 5 of whom play defense. This isn’t really a surprise; as Pittsburgh’s offense was one of the best in 2015, and only needed a few depth pieces. However, the defense was much maligned. Despite those improved numbers mentioned earlier, Pittsburgh gave up 272 yards per game through the air last season, good enough for third-worst in the NFL.

In the first round, Pittsburgh did something they hadn’t done since 1997, draft a corner. Maybe fans were uneasy about the decision to draft Miami’s Artie Burns at 25th overall, especially after William Jackson III went one pick earlier to the rival Bengals. Burns’ selection was perceived a reach and a panic move my some fans (myself included), but after seeing how quickly the Steelers put their pick in, it seems that Burns was their desired choice all along.

Like most of the Steelers draft picks, Burns brings outstanding athleticism and raw technique. The prospect from “The U” has great reflexes and instincts to break on balls and defend passes. At 6-foot, 193 lbs, and 33-inch arms, Burns has the balance of size, speed and athleticism that will let him run with NFL-caliber receivers. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert described him as “the best press, bump and run corner in this year’s draft”, totaling six INTs and five pass breakups his junior season.

Typically, Pittsburgh prefers corners to play off the ball, freeing up underneath routes to avoid getting beaten by big plays. The Steelers haven’t had a corner who could man up and blanket a receiver since Ike Taylor was in his prime. Of course with this aggressive play comes penalties and mistakes, but if DBs coach Carnell Lake can coach him up, there’s plenty to be excited about.

Not done yet, the Steelers filled another role in the secondary in round two, grabbing safety Sean Davis out of Maryland. This pick was also a need with Will Allen hitting free agency, and not much talent on the roster at the position. Davis played corner in his final season as a Terrapin, but wasn’t a good fit on the outside due to his bulky physique.

At the combine, Davis blew away the competition, especially the three-cone and short shuttle drills, important qualifications for a safety. With his athleticism, it gives the Steelers options to flip-flop their safeties and be able to disguise their coverage looks and blitzes.

The third round saw Pittsburgh draft Javon Hargrave, a powerful defensive tackle from South Carolina State. One of the best defenders at the FCS level, he will be replacing former Steeler turned Jet Steve McLendon on the roster and compete with Daniel McCullers for the starting spot at nose tackle in the base defense.

But what’s more interesting is what came in the post-draft press conference when Steelers d-line coach John Mitchell said specifically that Hargrave would be playing the 3-technique, a position not found in a base 3-4 defense. Typically, a 3-tech lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard and is typically responsible for rushing the passer, something Hargrave did quite a bit in college, totaling 16 sacks as a junior.

What this means is that the Steelers didn’t want to invest heavily in a traditional nose tackle because of the amount of time he would see the field. The Steelers spent roughly two-thirds of their plays in nickel or dime packages last season, meaning a space-eating, run-stuffing nose tackle would be on the sidelines in place of a corner or safety. These packages saw defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward bumped inside to play traditional D-Tackle roles.

While Tuitt and Heyward racked up sacks, leading the team with 6.5 and 7 respectively, it caused them to see massive snap totals. With coaching, Hargrave will rotate in with those two to alleviate some of their workload while he develops his hand use and technique.

Lastly, the Steelers selected linebacker Travis Feeney, an undersized but extremely athletic linebacker. A former safety, the 6-foot-4, 230 lb player out of Washington doesn’t have the size to play on the outside in the NFL, and would likely be a better fit to be a coverage linebacker in a 4-3.

Many thought he would be depth at inside linebacker, but linebackers’ coach Joey Porter insisted the team would like him to play on the outside as a pass rusher, as well as special teams.

What these selections show (along with 7th rounder Tyler Matakavich) is that the Steelers are drafting players with plenty of flexibility. Whether that’s to fit into different schemes, different play styles, or even different positions, Pittsburgh focused in on high-upside athletes that they can coach up.