Is the nickel worth a dime?

<b>PITTSBURGH –</b> In the Steelers' system, a nickel is worth more than a dime. At least that's what defensive coordinator Tim Lewis is hoping. With the addition of rookie safety Troy Polamalu, the Steelers feel they'll be better served playing a nickel defense as opposed to the dime they've used on passing downs in recent seasons. What's the difference?

The dime defense uses six defensive backs as opposed to the five the nickel employs. After finishing 20th against the pass in the NFL last season, and giving up a number of long third-down conversions, it would seem the Steelers would want to go the other way and put seven defensive backs on the field instead of five.

But by taking only nose tackle Casey Hampton off the field and adding Polamalu to the defense, the Steelers like the added coverage they get in the nickel, while still having enough size and quickness up front to rush the passer and stop the run.

It's a problem they had last season when they adjusted to the spread offenses opponents were using. The Steelers would take strong safety Lee Flowers out of the game and replace him with cornerback Deshea Townsend. Townsend gave the Steelers better coverage skills, but they did so at the expense of Flower's run-stopping ability.

Pittsburgh selected Polamalu in the first round of the draft with the hope that he'll give them more versatility.

In Saturday night's 21-16 preseason loss at Heinz Field against Philadelphia, the Steelers played the nickel extensively.

The new defensive scheme, however, is still a work in progress.

"We were taking a look at a lot of different things," said linebacker Joey Porter. "We've got a big package with the nickel, a lot of different things we can do with it."

After being stopped on their first two possessions, the Eagles put together back-to-back 14-play touchdown drives.

The Steelers put some strong pressure on Eagles quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and A.J. Feeley while using the nickel. As opposed to giving the yardage up in big chunks like they did last season in the dime, the Steelers made the Eagles chip away at them. That increases the odds of the offense making a mistake or the defense making a big play. That is why the nickel will be the Steelers' main pass defense this season.

In the dime defense, the Steelers move Porter to middle linebacker and Bell to a defensive end position, where he lines up against the opponent's left tackle. Basically, the two swap positions.

Thus far, Bell hasn't shown much ability to rush the passer from the end position, where the tackle knows Bell is coming and can engulf him. Bell has never been asked to rush the passer from the edge and doesn't have the bevy of pass-rush moves Porter has.

"Instead of taking guys and putting them in positions they aren't comfortable with, everybody is doing things that are more natural for them," said Porter. "I'm comfortable playing the middle in the dime, but if we're going to have two or three guys we need on the field who aren't, it hurts the whole defense."

Bell had nine sacks as a rookie two years ago, even though he didn't play on obvious passing downs. He did that by picking a lane to the quarterback and filling it quickly. And playing Bell on the inside allows Porter to stay outside and get after the quarterback from there. Porter had four interceptions playing the middle linebacker position in the dime last season, but he wore down late in the season after a strong start.

The nickel shows some promise and it makes much more sense to use the nickel and let Bell and Porter work from areas of strength rather than try to force square pegs into a round hole.

Dale Lolley
SteelCitySports.com

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