PITTSBURGH — The Steelers’ defense might be changing soon. With the likely returns of T.J. Watt and Damontae Kazee, the Steelers hope to inject life into a team reeling at 2-6 thus far on the season. While Watt can do that for the front seven, Kazee gives the Steelers more depth and versatility on the back end.
In the preseason, Pittsburgh experimented with three safety sets. At times, Kazee would sit on the back half of the formation at single-high while Minkah Fitzpatrick would slide down into the robber role. The ‘Big Nickel’ package as it is called, was the hottest trend in the NFL around the middle of the 2010s. However, it never indeed came into Pittsburgh in a big way, but Brian Flores in New England and Teryl Austin in Detroit both used it heavily in their defenses.
Kazee would act as this big nickel who had played both cornerback and free safety. He could allow the Steelers to match size against 12 personnel and bigger slot receivers. Mike Tomlin views the versatility of subpackage football to be important, and that includes the implementation of a potential big nickel package.
“I just think this era of specialization, particularly defensive specialization to match offensive personnel groupings, is a big component,” Tomlin said. “In three-safety defense or big nickel, as a lot of people refer to it, it’s one of the things that are in vogue to combat two-tight-end personnel groups, particularly when one of those tight ends is a vertical up-field type and a guy that’s wide receiver like. So, we explored that some, and it were an asset to us, and it’s reasonable to expect us to continue in that vein.”
That big nickel package is an asset to the Steelers in every way. Secondary coach Grady Brown opened the door for the big nickel package to present itself upon Kazee’s return to the field as well. While Kazee may be slightly behind the train at this point, his veteran savvy and consistent participation throughout training camp should give him the groundwork to get up and going quickly.
“In anybody that’s available, they always provide competition,” Brown said. “That competition heightens effort. And when you play with a heightened effort every day in practice, it will affect how you play on the weekend… at the end of the day, the math is who is playing the best and in what form or fashion can you get those guys on the field.”
As the leader of the secondary, Fitzpatrick is excited to see what Kazee can bring into the room with both he and Terrell Edmunds already playing at a high level. His versatility can allow more disguises on the back end, and present more opportunities for Edmunds and Fitzpatrick to make splash plays in the big nickel package.
“With me and TE out there, I feel like offenses get a bead on where we are, how we’re lined up, what we’re doing, stuff like that,” Fitzpatrick said. “When Kazee is out there, it adds a third guy who can also move around and be anything in the secondary. It does give them a more difficult read.”
There is no doubt there is a burst of energy that is around the Steelers locker room with Kazee’s likely return. And on the field, their potential three safety packages could give offenses more trouble than they bargained for based on the tape the Steelers have put out up to this point.