When you lose a veteran middle linebacker who hasn't missed a start in the past six years, you can expect some repercussions in your unit’s performance.
While Lawrence Timmons wasn’t an elite talent in Pittsburgh anymore, his steadying presence in the center of a rebuilt Steelers defense will be tough to fill, especially considering the work in coverage from the 10-year veteran throughout a resurgent 2016 season.
Vince Williams appears to be the next man up after the Steelers signed him to an extension last offseason, and Tyler Matakevich will push him for playing time, but neither player is a promising option in coverage.
The Steelers are in nickel personnel over 75 percent of the time, with their nose tackle coming off the field and the defense shifting to a four-man front. Last year, Timmons and Ryan Shazier rarely left the field in this alignment, but this season the Steelers might consider opting for a safety/linebacker hybrid to help fill Timmons’ nickel role.
It’s a strategy they’ve attempted in the past, even when Timmons was here, most notably near the end of the 2015 season when the veteran linebacker left the field in favor of Robert Golden, while Will Allen and Mike Mitchell patrolled the back end.
The experiment didn’t amount to much and the Steelers returned to Timmons being an every-down player the following season.
Don’t be surprised if the Steelers opt to go a similar route this season, as they continually look to get more athleticism on the field, as well as eliminate potential mismatches in coverage.
Last year, Timmons was often forced to match up against fleet-footed slots like Julian Edelman, putting the linebacker in a brutal man-coverage situation. Neither Williams nor Matakevich will be an upgrade in that respect, and if the goal is to eventually topple the Patriot giant, the Steelers may need to alter their current defensive approach.
Because of Davis’ versatile skill set, the Steelers might actually have two options. The first, and more likely choice, is to find a box safety who can hold his own against the run while also stepping into the slot or picking up an in-line or backfield threat in coverage. These hybrid types have become more common around the league, a model first established by Kam Chancellor’s unique style.
Even at pick No. 30, they can expect several candidates to potentially be on the board who could fulfill such a role. UConn’s Obi Melifonwu is the name that leaps to mind. The 6-3.7, 224-pound safety has the size, tackling ability and coverage skills to fit the bill.
But while Melifonwu is terrific in his run fills, angles and wrap-ups working top-down on the ball from a deep safety alignment, he’s not as instinctive as Davis in the box and not aggressive enough to blow up blockers. I do think Melifonwu can be a tight end/mismatch eliminator against big slots, but I worry about him a bit as a true box type against the run despite his size and length.
If the Round One fit isn’t there, or the team opts to address another position of need, Florida’s Marcus Maye could be a quality Day Two pick, with the size and toughness to work off contact and sift through trash in the box.
Of course, the other option is that Davis plays in the box and as a big slot, two roles he saw time in last season, while the Steelers look to add another safety on the back end. Davis was excellent as a run defender this past season, but if Pittsburgh continues to move to more Cover 2 looks this year, I expect they’ll want Davis’ range and ball skills for split-high looks, and someone a little less dynamic in the box.
Nevertheless, the team has previously shown interest in Davis playing all over the defense, and having someone with Melifonwu’s skill set to play quarters or halves while also being able to step into the slot would allow the Steelers to mix up their match-ups and assignments in coverage more often.
Despite his size, I also love Washington’s Budda Baker (5-9.5, 195) for this role.
Baker’s tape is terrific when he’s in the slot or in the box. He consistently beats blockers to spots and makes stops with exceptional key-and-diagnose ability. I’ve already written about Baker extensively here, but I would like to emphasize that his presence could potentially fill two voids for Pittsburgh because his man coverage ability is more suited to eliminating quicker slot receivers while he also possesses the range and ball skills to dominate on the back end as well.
In short, despite already having a very solid safety tandem, I wouldn't rule out the Steelers going back to the well if the value is right, even in the first round of the 2017 draft. They’re always interested in adding more speed and athleticism to their defensive unit, and Timmons’ absence now gives them the perfect excuse to move to more dime looks against 11 personnel teams that like to spread the field, flex a tight end or work heavily from the shotgun.
I still believe pass rusher is the biggest need on this roster, but the Steelers have enough flexibility to consider Melifonwu or Baker if either player is still on the board at pick 30. Given the coaching staff’s recent experimentation with three-safety looks, and the obvious void in coverage skills at linebacker, expect the team to keep their options open for a versatile defender they could potentially utilize in those critical situations.