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Steelers Analysis

Steelers Looking to Finally Master Long-Planned Heavy Nickel

The Pittsburgh Steelers hope to finally master their long-planned Heavy Nickel, with DeShon Elliott, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee.

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Steelers S Damontae Kazee
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Damontae Kazee celebrates a tackle against the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 16, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — In 2022, the Pittsburgh Steelers and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin developed an innovation solution to the rash of big slot wide receivers, hyper-athletic tight ends and running backs that run routes like wide receivers going around the NFL. Instead of using a traditional slot cornerback — an undersized defensive back with short-area quickness in the mold of Mike Hilton — the Steelers had plans to make their fifth defensive back an extra safety, instead. Three years later, Damontae Kazee is crossing his fingers, hoping that the Steelers can finally get that plan off the ground.

The bigger-bodied safety would be better able to match up with the bigger, more physical slot options in coverage, and would also hold up better against the run when offenses decide to block with those big-bodies targets. It’s called a Heavy Nickel for a reason. But for several reasons, they’ve never really been able to implement like they planned to. In 2022, the team had Terrell Edmunds at strong safety and Minkah Fitzpatrick at free safety, and signed Kazee to be the third safety. Kazee broke his arm in the preseason finale, and missed half the season, largely putting the plan on the shelf.

Last year, Edmunds departed, and the team attempted to piece the safety room together by starting Kazee, moving Minkah Fitzpatrick to more of a strong safety role, and adding Keanu Neal. That wasn’t going great even when it was going, and then Neal got hurt, Fitzpatrick got hurt, Kazee was suspended, and the Steelers spent the stretch run of the season scrambling to field two safeties, let alone three.

Pittsburgh Steelers DB Eric Rowe Patrick Peterson Levi Wallace

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs Levi Wallace, Eric Rowe and Patrick Peterson celebrate during a game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Jan. 6, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

SAFETY AS THE SOLUTION TO STEELERS DB SHORTAGE

This offseason, the Steelers let slot cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Chandon Sullivan walk in free agency, and though they’ve recently back-filled that spot by signing Cam Sutton, he is expected to be suspended for at least a portion of the start of the season following his domestic violence arrest. Even when Sutton has played in the slot, he’s been more of a pure pass-down option. He didn’t play a lot of slot cornerback on 1st and 10 in his first stint with the Steelers.

That’s left many wondering what the Steelers plan to do with their Nickel package. The plan is to go back to the three-safety look, now that they have their personnel sorted out. DeShon Elliott is the new strong safety, finally fully replacing the role Edmunds had. That is putting Fitzpatrick back to his normal role, and Kazee back to being the third wheel — something he’s perfectly comfortable with.

“It’s back to normal for right now” he said. “I don’t want to jinx anything. We’re praying and hoping that everyone can come out healthy this year. No injuries, and with myself, no suspensions. … I hope we stay healthy so we can run this three safety stuff and do what we need to do.”

Steelers S Damontae Kazee

Steelers S Damontae Kazee and CB Joey Porter Jr. make a tackle against the Cincinnati Bengals, Nov. 26, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

As far as putting in the three-safety package, he said it’s still too early to tell how it’s going to work and how much they can build off it. Ideally, they’d have two seasons of results to use to tweak and find next-level changes to make. Instead, this will be the third try at a first time.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “We’re gonna pray and keep on working on it until we see it in the season. For right now, it’s looking good. But it’s now. We play later. Just gotta wait.”

While nothing can be done about the injuries that have plagued the position over the last two years, Kazee said he understands the need to change his game to make sure he stays on the field. He was fined repeatedly in 2024, leading up to a suspension for a big hit on Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Michael Pittman that caused him to miss the final three games of the regular season.

“I gotta change,” Kazee said. “I’m not gonna be out there out trying to do my normal stuff. I’ve gotta slow down sometimes, and just give them a chance to look at me, I guess. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

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