Nickel or Dime?

While the real position battles won't begin until the Steelers head for St. Vincent College in Latrobe in a little under two months, the team's volunteer coaching sessions now underway and mini-camp at the beginning of June will offer a sneak preview of several key battles.<br> <br> Here is the third in a series previewing those:<br> <br> <b>Today: Nickel and Dime Rushers<br> </b>

Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis came up with the plan to slide Joey Porter to the middle linebacker position and Kendrell Bell to rush end in the dime defense while on the way to the Pro Bowl after the 2001 season.

The idea was to keep two of the Steelers' best defensive players on the field at all times. And since Porter was better in coverage than Bell, he would be the man in the middle, with Bell taking his explosiveness to the outside to rush the passer.

Things never worked out, however, as Bell suffered a sprained ankle in a preseason game at Washington and missed most of training camp. The ankle nagged him throughout most of the 2002 season and Bell never settled into that rush end position, even though Porter thrived in the middle, tying for the team lead with four interceptions.

Even though they combined for 12 sacks, Clark Haggans and Rodney Bailey was no Kendrell Bell.

For that reason – and to hedge their bets for the future – the team selected Florida State pass-rushing specialist Alonzo Jackson in the second round of this year's draft.

The Steelers are continuing to work Bell into the mix at rush end opposite Jason Gildon. But that experiment probably won't last all that long.

Bell is excellent in space and has possibly the fastest burst to the ball anyone in the league has had since Junior Seau was in his prime. But when you line him up over the left tackle, he's not nearly as effective.

That could lead the Steelers to switch to a nickel defense, something they've begun toying with.

Going with five defensive backs instead of six will be tough. Most teams now put at least four receivers on the field in obvious passing situations. Throw in the excellent receiving threats out of the backfield that a lot of teams have, and you can get a bad match up pretty quickly.

Once you match up your top three corners and one of the safeties on receivers, that only leaves one safety deep, assuming the linebacker is covering the man out of the backfield.

But the Steelers like the pass rushing scenarios they can come up with by having both Porter and Bell standing up behind the line of scrimmage.

One other possibility would be to go with three defensive linemen – counting Gildon as an end – and keeping six defensive backs on the field.

The Steelers have toyed with defenses like that in the past and opponents have countered it by putting a big back in the backfield and running against it.

Adjusting to a nickel defense will be a key for the Steelers during training camp and the foundation is being laid for that move now.

Dale Lolley

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