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One Change Brings Flexibility to Steelers Defensive Depth Chart



Steelers Mike Tomlin Cameron Heyward
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talks with veteran defensive tackle Cameron Heyward at training camp, Aug. 8, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers practice at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, on the south bank of the Monongahela River about three miles upstream of its confluence with the Allegheny River to become the Ohio River alongside Acrisure Stadium, where the Steelers play on Sundays.

Despite the apparent relative ease of the downstream connection, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin does not plan on rowing there when the Steelers meet the San Francisco 49ers for their season opener on Sunday.

But he is packing several oars. Well, more accurately, it’s OR’s.

Tomlin released his first depth chart of the 2023 season on Monday, which typically delineates who will start and who will back up on a week-to-week basis. But that one little word — OR — throws a wrench in that process.

Tomlin used it three times in his initial depth chart, presenting to the world co-starters at both of his inside linebacker position and his strong safety slot. In his initial weekly press conference on Tuesday, he suggested that a second slot — Nickel cornerback — could also get that treatment as the season goes on.

The Steelers listed Kwon Alexander OR Cole Holcomb at one inside linebacker spot and Elandon Roberts OR Alexander at the other. Keanu Neal OR Damontae Kazee will start at strong safety. The first depth chart listed Chandon Sullivan, but did not yet account for the late acquisition of former Texans starter Desmond King, who could easily join Sullivan in that slot moving forward.

Tomlin said his plan for King is still up in the air, citing just one practice under his belt. But he seems pretty clear that the idea at linebacker and safety is to have multiple options of different body types and playing styles at those positions that can be tailored to meet the specific strengths of that week’s opponent.

“Not only this week, but week-in and week-out, we’re going to be willing to mix and match in an effort to get the appropriate matchups and the best mix of people on the field,” Tomlin said. “That can describe the strong safety position, that can describe the inside linebacker position. That can describe the Nickel position. I think flexibility from a matchup perspective is really en vogue in today’s game defensively. I think if you’re going to be excellent on defense, you’d better be mindful of matchups.”

This week, those middle of the field playmakers will be tight end George Kittle, running back Christian McCaffrey and slot receiver Deebo Samuel. But each opponent will provide a different challenge, prompting different combinations of Steelers starters.

“The people you put on them are significant,” Tomlin said. “That’s going to be our story.”

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