Should the Pittsburgh Steelers nickel defense shift more to a 3-3-5 look?

Javon Hargrave should play a key role in lessening the enormous hole in which Ryan Shazier has presented to the Pittsburgh Steelers at middle linebacker. What?

Yes, the 305-pound nose tackle entering year three could be a player that makes the Steelers much more comfortable in their defensive alignments as they head into their first season without their star middle linebacker. It could come by getting Hargrave on the field more on obvious passing situations.

There is no doubt about it, Javon Hargrave is a solid football player. He has quick feet to get off of the line of scrimmage faster than most men his size but still lives to up his strength in size as well.

However, from year one to year two, his snap total went down 3.1%, from 492 snaps played to 452. The vibe after his first season likely should have been to get him on the field more. Especially after a strong showing in the AFC Championship.

The issue is that the NFL is moving to a nickel league. Teams are lining up three wide receivers more than ever, and running backs are becoming legitimate passing threats. It helps to keep an extra defensive back on the field.

In most nickel situations, the 4-3 will run a 4-2-5 and take their run stopping linebacker off of the field. 3-4 teams, like the Pittsburgh Steelers, would go to a 2-4-5 and take their extra run-stopping defensive lineman off of the field. That would be Hargrave, especially considering the pass rushing prowess of Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.

Still, at this point in time, thanks to Javon Hargrave, the Steelers defensive line is it’s greatest strength. With the injury to Ryan Shazier, the middle linebacker spot is it’s greatest weakness. Running a 3-3-5 in nickel situations could sub in the team’s strength and sub out their weakness.

Versatile Outside Linebackers

Mike Tomlin has talked about the progression of Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt all of the time. He always makes sure to mention that their sack totals are not as important, because it is their versatility, and ability to drop into coverage that is a hidden value for each player.

Now, we are hearing reports about each linebacker learning to pass rush from the opposite side from a year before. Dupree and Watt are both ridiculous athletes, and it appears as though the Steelers plans is for them to be able to rush either from both sides and drop either from both sides.

This is what makes the 3-3-5 even more possible. They keep their starting three defensive linemen on the field to rush the passer. Hargrave, Heyward, and Tuitt is the strength of this unit.

From there, their three linebackers are the two outside linebackers and just one middle linebacker. They seem to trust their two outside linebackers in coverage enough to let this work. Watch the play below. T.J. Watt is an elite athlete who can play in coverage off of the ball. He defended seven passes and has an interception.

The Steelers have experimented with Watt and Dupree off of the ball at times as well.

Last season against the New England Patriots, the team went to their heavy front in an effort to contain the Patriots multiple running backs and tight ends. However, they were taking one of T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree off of the field and keeping Vince Williams and Sean Spence on.

Even with Watt or Dupree technically out of position, a Watt-Williams, combination sounds a lot better than Williams-Spence.

On top of that, it is a bit of a way for the Steelers to bite back at offenses. Teams are understanding that pass catching running backs and tight ends have to keep teams in heavy personnel, but with pass defenders on the field.

The Steelers would have five players who are known as pass rushers on the field. Whether it is Watt or Dupree on or off of the ball, the defense can switch up the scheme and drop one or the other. They would be heavy and as equipped as any team to handle some of the short passes.

Keep an eye on not only which side Watt and Dupree are lining up on, but also whether or not one of the two is lining up off of the ball and in space. It could be a way for Javon Hargrave to help resolve the Ryan Shazier issue.

– 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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