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The Pittsburgh Steelers have added intriguing pieces to Mike Tomlin's defense

Some may feel the need to slap a label on the Steelers' defensive progression, but it really might just be as simple as matching up.

Maybe it's the historian in me that feels the need to label and file away.

Because maybe I'll write it like this one day:

"One of the lieutenants of the 2002 championship team, Mike Tomlin learned the 'Tampa-2' and eventually brought it back to Pittsburgh, where Chuck Noll and Bud Carson initially diagrammed it into legendary status."

Or something like that.

Of course, Tomlin first had to transition from the Bill Cowher/Dom Capers/Dick LeBeau 34 front, cover-3 scheme that was given proper respect by the young Tomlin, who showed his wisdom by keeping LeBeau on board -- and, well, you know the rest.

See, I need to label and file away, and now is that time -- with the rebuilding of that defense in Year 2 A.L. (After LeBeau) -- for Tomlin to bring it all full circle.

We've been waiting for him to declare it since he and Kevin Colbert made their first draft pick together in 2007, when Tomlin said of Lawrence Timmons, "He has some Derrick Brooks qualities."

Brooks was arguably the MVP of that Tampa-2, just as Jack Lambert had arguably been the MVP of the Noll-2. They could run the middle seams and cover deep whenever anyone plotted to split the safeties.

We all seemed to wonder whether Tomlin was building toward a 4-3, and took his denials in stride because, hey, there were two Super Bowls still to attend with the pieces at hand. In fact, we applauded Tomlin's wisdom, his maturity, in allowing someone else, LeBeau, to win it his way.

But the pieces began to depart and the replacements came in dribs and drabs. Timmons was one, and LaMarr Woodley, while helping as a drop end, was strong and big enough to settle in as a 4-3 end. And Ziggy Hood had to be a 4-3 one-gap penetrator, in spite of what the staff tried to tell us. Sean Spence and then Ryan Shazier were small and speedy inside linebackers built to run and cover. Bud Dupree, like Woodley, is big enough to stay home and rush as a 4-3 defensive end as well. But even Dupree, at 270, or whatever Tomlin had him drop to from his college weight, had some rare hip fluidity and could drop into coverage. That's reportedly what the great Tampa-2 defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, actually liked about the Steelers' defense this past season.

When Kiffin visited practice for a short spell, I perceived it as a consultation session. I perceived the wise old genius was brought in to help out a first-year coordinator bridge two systems.

"You'd be foolish not to listen to him," Keith Butler said at the time. "He's done a lot of the same things that we're doing now and he knows some of the ins and outs that help us out a little bit, some of the little details of things that you've got to pay attention to in terms of coverage and stuff like that. A lot of stuff that he's done he's kind of adjusting to us a little bit because we're a 3-4 front and he's always been a 4-3 guy."

And what did Kiffin think about that?

"Well, he likes it because it's a little bit more versatile," Butler said. "You don't have to teach those defensive ends to stand up and drop and stuff like that in fire zone, so he likes that part of it. And I think it's a little more versatile than a 4-3."

Part of me didn't believe it. Part of me believes the Steelers are, or were, trying to do too much, trying to do it all with a mishmash of parts and, frankly, a mishmash of training.

After all, hadn't Tomlin spent an inordinate amount of energy teaching specific cover-2 details to his defensive backs last training camp?

But Tomlin didn't have the second coverage safety to carry through with it. Will Allen, a box safety in the latter part of his career, was forced to replace the younger and faster Shamarko Thomas because, as Tomlin alluded, Thomas just wasn't smart enough. And in a cover-2, both safeties have to be smart, particularly to disguise with their split decisions before the snap.

While we knew the Steelers needed cornerbacks coming into this draft, we also knew they really needed a strong safety, one who was not only smart enough but versatile enough to do the same things Mike Mitchell could do, someone who could play free and strong in order to better disguise.

And, yes, the new strong safety had to have the range to play center field, the diagnostic skills to read a quarterback and/or a running back, and the pop in his tackling and the hands to catch the ball after putting those diagnostic skills to use.

Sean Davis, for all that I've seen on tape, can do all of that.

Would anybody admit to this being a huge and perhaps final piece of the cover-2 puzzle?

Coaches hate to label as much as historians hate not to, and they really hate to give a rookie a job before the first snap of minicamp, so the question had to be worded properly, and probably too un-definitively:

What did Lake envision for his second-round draft pick?

"Offenses are spreading you out to create mismatches," Lake said. "They will put a player like Gronkowski out wide and force you to match up with either a linebacker or a safety on Gronkowski. Well, you have to have a guy that has the size and can cover. He provides that coverage for us."

Perhaps I'm just reading too much into this. Is it possible the Steelers merely drafted players to cover other specific players? Specific threats?

And, hey, the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots with interior pressure on Tom Brady. Why couldn't the Steelers just draft a big man with a quick first step who can bring chaos to the interiors of offensive lines?

Oh, hello, Javon Hargrave.

With the next pick, the Steelers drafted that precise piece. The Steelers not only needed a "big butt" inside to keep bodies off of their smaller, mercurial inside backers, they needed a defensive tackle who could rush the passer. After all, 70 percent of the snaps are used with five defensive backs on the field anymore.

Hargrave, potentially, is that perfect tonic. And John Mitchell, the defensive line coach, wasn't about to squelch any talk of the rookie having to prove himself first. Mitchell, like Lake, was ready to discuss his vision for his rookie.

"When we play in our base defense, when we put him in a 3-technique," said Mitchell, "he's not going to be over the big 6-7, 6-8 tackle, he's going to be over the 6-4, 6-5 guard."

Wait a minute. Nose tackles are either 0 or 1-tech. Is Hargrave going to be a 3-tech in the base?

"Yeah, he'll be a 3-tech," Mitchell said, before quickly saying, "Yeah, he'll be a nose."

And Mitchell went on to explain that the important dimension Hargrave brings is the ability to spell Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt in the sub-package. In that event, Hargrave would be a 3-tech.

My ears had first heard what I wanted to hear, that Hargrave would play defensive tackle in the new 4-3 base and thus push Heyward out to end. That would, after all, be the label I've been waiting to file away in the history book.

Perhaps Tomlin, in his end-of-draft press conference, would clear this up. Perhaps he would admit that he's finally brought the Tampa-2 home, where it belongs. After all, the Steelers added even more 4-3 pieces late in the draft with the 230-pound Travis Feeney, who's better built to play 4-3 outside backer than 3-4 edge, and Tyler Matakevich, the classic old-school run-downs middle backer with 493 college tackles.

Was Sean Davis the tip-off? Would he be used as a deep-half safety? Or a roll-down safety? A middle-third safety?

"He's capable of doing all of those things," said Tomlin. "It's less about him, when we start talking about those things, and it's more about the type of ball that we choose to play, globally speaking.

"We're not going to make those decisions based on him. We play some half field, we play some single-high safety, we play some man-to-man. All of those things are going to be required of us to be a well-balanced attack."

Is that your vision for this defense, Mike? Flexibility? Or are you looking to complete the turnover to a cover-2? A Tampa-2?

"We've got to have versatility," he said, before adding: "I don't know where you get the cover-2 line of thinking from. We want to do all things well."

In other words, he's drafting players to fill gaps not define schemes for those of us who dabble in definitions.

Tomlin wants Gronkowski and Tyler Eifert covered. He wants Brady and Andy Dalton pressured up the middle. He wants to be able to do whatever's required on a week-to-week basis to win the Super Bowl.

And this draft -- with its defensive speed and productivity -- appears to have gone a long way in finding those needed pieces.

The history book will just have to wait. At least until the first week in February.


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