Steelers' Nickel Being Blocked

The Steelers' ultra-sleek "nickel" is being used on 70 percent of defensive snaps this preseason. So it's become the new base. And it's not working. Why?

PITTSBURGH -- Troy Polamalu dreaded coming into the office this weekend.

No, it wasn't the media glare that bugged him so much. vJudging from his answers to reporters, Polamalu wasn't interested at all in his purported sideline eruption during the Steelers' 31-21 loss in Philadelphia.

"I don't know if it was any different," he said. "I always try to play the game with emotion."

When pressed, Polamalu said, "It wasn't good enough," and then "I really don't know."

Finally, he answered another version of the same question with, "You tell me."

No, instead, Polamalu was dreading the tape of the Eagles game at Saturday's meeting.

"I expect to get yelled at," he said after the mob walked away. "I spent the whole day yesterday telling myself, 'Listen. Be humble. Get better.'"

One has to wonder if the Steelers' defense can get better. After all, the Eagles walked out to a 24-0 lead before the Steelers' first-team defense left the field for good at the end of the third quarter trailing 31-7.

And two of those Eagles touchdowns were rung up by the Mark Sanchez-led Eagles second team.

This preseason, the Steelers' first-teamers have played 16 series and allowed 47 points.

To put that into perspective, the Steelers played 13 series against both Green Bay and New England last year and allowed 31 and 55 points, respectively.

So this year's running preseason performance fits somewhere in between two of last year's worst performances.

And this is your new speed defense.

This, actually, is Mike Tomlin's vision of run-and-hit football, the kind he began to reveal to Pittsburgh when he targeted run-and-hit linebacker Lawrence Timmons in his first draft, and not shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis.

Tomlin's defense -- formerly called a nickel, or just "sub-packages" -- has become the team's new base defense. In three games, the Steelers' starting defense has been in a so-called sub-package for exactly 70 percent of the snaps. In those 76 snaps, the Steelers are allowing 6.7 yards per play, well up from last year's average of 5.2 ypp.

Against the run, the Steelers, in their new base defense, are allowing 7.3 yards per carry this preseason. That's 3.0 yards more per carry than last year's awful overall number of 4.3.

And 21 of the 27 preseason carries against their new base defense have come with 10 yards or less to go to get a first down. In that scenario, in which the old Okie would normally have been on the field, the Steelers are allowing 7.5 yards per carry.

In 20 runs this preseason against the Steelers' Okie -- with a nose tackle -- the Steelers are allowing a respectable 3.8 per carry, and most of that was done two weeks ago against Buffalo, which used a traditional fullback alignment most of the first half.

But when three wide receivers are on the field, the Steelers' defense struggles.

So what's wrong with the nickel, a.k.a. the new base defense?

Polling produced different answers.

"We just have to make plays," said Cameron Heyward.

"I felt I was a little hesitant this weekend and a little tired," said rookie Ryan Shazier. "I have to get in shape to go out there and be able to play. Me missing those practices hurt my conditioning."

"The coaches just want to make sure we're all on the same page," said Steve McLendon. "That's what this defense is built on. We all have to be on the same page. That's the biggest thing."

Polamalu said he believes there are "a lot of things that are the reason why, to be honest. But it's tough to point your finger."

Chuck Noll might've looked at it more logically. After one game in which Noll had replaced defensive end John Goodman, Noll was asked why he made the move.

"He was being blocked," Noll said.

And that's the problem with the Steelers' new base defense: It gets blocked, and probably because it's too small.

In an attempt to put an ultra-quick, run-and-hit unit on the field, the Steelers have drafted players and moved them down in position.

For instance, in the Steelers' new base defense, college DEs Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are now playing DT; college OLB Jarvis Jones is playing DE; college 4-3 strong-side OLB Timmons is playing MLB; college 4-3 weak-side OLB Shazier is playing SOLB; and college strong safety Polamalu is playing WOLB.

In the Steelers' more traditional base defense, a college DE such as Jason Worilds would stand up and play OLB.

"It's a changing game," Joey Porter said with a shrug.

But can it work? Can this faster-but-much-smaller unit stand up against offenses that are trotting out three WRs in their base offenses? So far this preseason, the answer has been a resounding no.

"It wasn't a good day, but it was a preseason day," newly re-signed DE Brett Keisel said. "We have to find a way to bounce back. You have to find a way to respond. You've got another game before you head into the regular season, and you want to go into the regular season with a little momentum. That's what the team's focus -- in my opinion -- needs to be.

"That was a bad day," Keisel added. "You've got to learn from the mistakes. And you've got to find a way to come back to work, put your best foot forward, and forge ahead."

What about Polamalu? The guy who dreaded the viewing of the most recent tape, the guy who appeared to be most down in Saturday's locker room, was asked if he believes this defense can be fixed.

"Yes, I do," he said. "Absolutely."

It has the athletes.

It just has to stop being blocked.

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