Can heavy defensive front help fill Ryan Shazier void?

Sep 17, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave (79) on the field during the fourth quarter of a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
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The Pittsburgh Steelers and Mike Tomlin have been adamant that it will take a group effort to even try to fill the ginormous void that has been left by Ryan Shazier. The team is using a linebacker by committee approach, they left Sean Davis on an island against Rob Gronkowski and another wrinkle they have thrown in is a heavy defensive front.

Can heavy defensive front help fill Ryan Shazier void?

It is worth noting that the 39 snaps Javon Hargrave has played in the two games following the Shazier injury were season highs. 61, and 65% of the teams defensive snaps were two of just three games this season Hargrave has played two-thirds of an entire game.

This tends to make sense in the idea that without Shazier the middle is exposed. At the least, Hargrave gives you a better chance to bring pressure and stuff run in the middle of the field before it ever starts.

However, what is very interesting to note was the Steelers gameplan on Sunday. They ran a season high of base formation. In nickel situations, they brought Mike Hilton onto the field, and rotated taking off T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree.  Aside from the game where he left due to injury the lowest snap percentage Watt played coming into the game was 70%. On Sunday, he played 66%.  The low for Dupree was 79% and his snap count drop to 60% of the teams plays. 

Even in dime situations. William Gay and LJ Fort came on for the two linebackers.

On one hand, this makes this sense. The Patriots are a team that uses personnel to put your defense in tough situations. On the other, Sean Spence was on the field five more snaps than Watt and 11 more than Dupree. That just doesn’t sound right. Watt is great in space and it is tough to think he could not do some of the things that Spence can do in these situations. Just the threat of him on the field makes the defense more multiple overall.

Also, adding this wrinkle in a one-game scenario against the Patriots is risky as it is. It takes a team that gets into a groove of doing things a certain way and switches it up. On the play below, you can see the Steelers are shuffling and getting into place as the ball is snapped. In fact, T.J. Watt is at the bottom of the screen running off of the field as the ball is snapped. The issue? There are still just ten players out there without Watt.

Now, Sean Davis who is supposed to watch is Rob Gronkowski is running into place as the ball is snapped and you are a man down. That is what the Patriots do best. They put you in situations that you are uncomfortable being in.

The heavy sets were efficient in generating a pass rush, though, and they played a part in the first Steelers interception of Tom Brady since 2005. It will be interesting to see if this is a concept that was drawn up specifically for the Patriots game, or if this an idea the team will look to consistently as they look to gain that communication and fluidness that avoids a breakdown like that in the playoffs. It is certainly an option as this team still struggles to figure out life without Ryan Shazier.

– Parker Hurley is Pittsburgh Steelers team manager of Full Press Coverage. He covers the NFL. Like and follow on and Facebook.

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