What a nickel will cost you

There are still problems in the red zone, both on offense and defense. The punt and kickoff coverage is also still suspect. But the big question lingering from the playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans concerned the pass defense. Tim Lewis has provided a few answers, but the Pittsburgh Steelers have sprung a new and somewhat unexpected leak.

The coaches and players of the Pittsburgh Steelers all knew they had to do something to improve the pass defense and get off the field on 3rd down. The result through three games is one of the best pass defenses in the NFL (144.7 yards per game, 2nd best in the league) and a 3rd down conversion rate that is much easier to swallow (35.1%, 9th best in the league).

For James Farrior, there is little mystery about the dramatic improvement, "We've been practicing against the spread all off-season and summer time. We know what to do and we know if teams are going to do it we know how to play it."

The key strategy is the new nickel scheme, something previously missing from Bill Cowher's defensive repertoire. In place of one of the defensive linemen is a defensive back. Plus, there is no longer a linebacker at strong safety. What the Steelers have gained against the pass, they now surrender to the run.

Last season, the opposition almost entirely abandoned the run and chose to spread the Steelers out. This season, the trend is the other way, as the early statistics indicate.

The Steelers are currently ranked 18th against the run (101.0 yards per game and 4.1 yards per rushing attempt). They have surrendered more rushing touchdowns (4) than any other team in the NFL save the Atlanta Falcons.

Pittsburgh may have rediscovered the running game against the Cincinnati Bengals, but they still have a few things to figure out about defending it out of the nickel.

The film is beginning to mount on Lewis' new nickel defense and the opposition will likely discover a few chinks in the secondary. In the meantime, offense coordinators will come out in formations that demand the nickel and then try to run out of it.

Can the Steelers still run the Okie when they need to do so?

While Pittsburgh has aimed to get its best players in Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell on the field more, they run the risk of tiring them out. Kendrick Clancy is not really a replacement for Hampton when he needs a blow and other teams will try to recognize when he's not in there and run wild. Furthermore, the stretch run of the season and into the playoffs may find the defensive stars running out of gas.

Will the defense be up for the task of facing RB Ricky Williams running at them 40+ times a game in January?

There must be some concern that the Steelers will be unable to flip the switch for the run defense when they most need to do so.

For the time being, the new improved pass defense should serve the Steelers well with the Tennessee Titans coming up and the Cleveland Browns in town the following week. That is, as long as Jerome Bettis can eat up the clock in the 4th quarter and Tommy Maddox and company can control the ball, finding an alternative way to keep such key players such as Bell and Hampton fresh.

And therein lies the true Achilles heal. Teams that can stop the Steelers from running the ball and possess a potent ground game can keep Hampton and Bell on the field, initially a counterintuitive prospect. The Bengals never got Corey Dillon going, partly thanks to an injury, and they also cheated towards defending the pass.

Opposing defenses will have to choose their poison, death by Alan Faneca or Tommy Maddox. Given the script offered by the Bengals, we fans should expect more of the latter and hopes for few turnovers, especially the ones that go the other way for six like they did in Kansas City. That translates to a lot more of 8-in-the-box.

This puts the pressure on Jeff Hartings and his creaky knee, along with Kendall Simmons and his recovery from off-season surgery and diabetes. Hartings still looks shaky pulling like he needs to do and Simmons is not yet all the way back.

The Titans like to run the cover-two out of the nickel, which might at first appear as good news for the Steelers' running game. However, Tennessee appears to have figured out how to defend the run in that scheme. The Titans sport the best run defense in the NFL (61.3 yards per game).

How do they do it?

Jeff Hartings knows how and saw first hand in the playoff loss to the Titans, "I felt it was one of the best defensive lines I have seen, even when the backups came in, since I've been in the league."

The Titans have the depth and the talent on the defensive line to defend the run out of the nickel defense. Looking at big Casey Hampton and tweener Kendrick Clancy, the Steelers don't appear to be as blessed.

Hartings might offer the blueprint to beat the Steelers defense in 2003 when discussing Tennessee, "We have to get the running game going and that will wear those guys out."

The Pittsburgh Steelers would appear much more vulnerable to such a game plan than the Tennessee Titans.

Jim Russell

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