Mike Tomlin says secondary key to defense

By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Steelers have spent a large portion of the offseason concentrating on ways to improve their defense, particularly their sub packages that feature five or more defensive backs. The reason:

The Steelers used their nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) packages 65 percent of the time in 2013 because of the number of teams who use spread offenses or multiple-receiver formations.

That number represents a drastic increase over past seasons when the Steelers used their sub packages no more than 55 percent of the snaps.

“I think in today’s NFL it’s about situational football and what offenses do, and how many receivers they have on the field,” coach Mike Tomlin said at the owners meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes resort. “Often times, we spend a lot of time in sub-package football, whether you are a 3-4 or a 4-3 [defense]. In today’s NFL, most times you have five or six defensive backs on the field.”

That’s why the Steelers are expected to concentrate on drafting defensive backs, particularly cornerbacks, in the May draft. Among the first-round possibilities are Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard.

With so much emphasis on sub packages, that would decrease the possibility of the Steelers using a high pick on a nose tackle who would play approximately 35 percent of the snaps.

“We have to be multiple,” Tomlin said. “We have to be capable of providing pressure, but more importantly than that, you have to be able to provide pressure with four or less [players]. I think that’s what gives you the flexibility to be something to deal with.”

Something different

Tomlin amped the intensity in training camp before the 2013 season when he had the players go through live sessions with tackling several times a week. He is attempting to do even more this summer.

For the first time since he became coach, Tomlin is planning to schedule a two-day scrimmage against the Buffalo Bills at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.

The idea is to work against a team who plays a different style than the Steelers, allowing the players to get familiar with a look other than the one they see every day at camp.

Spence update

Inside linebacker Sean Spence, who has not played since sustaining a severe knee injury as a rookie in the 2012 preseason, is expected to be ready to take part in the team’s offseason training activities.

That, however, does not mean Spence, a third-round draft choice from Miami, is ready to resume playing.

General manager Kevin Colbert said the team will monitor Spence’s progress in organized team activities (OTAs) and get a better idea of what they can expect from him for training camp. Spence returned to practice on a limited basis last season, but that lasted only a couple days because he sustained another injury in workouts.

“Because it was such a severe injury, you have to monitor where he is on a day-to-day basis and back-to-back days practicing because we didn’t get to see that,” Colbert said.

“The glimpse that we saw was great, but it was a small sample, and you didn’t get to see if there was going to be side effects from extra work.

“That’s something we’ll find out throughout the spring and the summer.”

Happy anniversary

Colbert recently passed his 14th anniversary of joining the Steelers (Feb. 15, 2000), meaning he has worked longer with Tomlin than he did with former coach Bill Cowher.