PITTSBURGH -- Cameron Heyward may have provided a glimpse earlier this week into a subtle yet significant shift that appears to be taking place in the Steelers’ defensive philosophy.
When asked if nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme has become devalued with teams playing more nickel or dime than their base defense, Heyward said, “The nose tackle position is vital. I think it’s the most critical position on our defense in the run.”
OK, no news flash there.
Then Heyward added this: “I think our nose tackles have to be ready to play in sub package this year.”
If that is the case then Steve McLendon is primed for a bigger role in 2014, not a reduced one.
And he could become a three-down player, staying in the game with Heyward when the Steelers replace a lineman with an extra defensive back.
The nose tackle has traditionally come off the field when the Steelers employ a fifth defensive back in their nickel defense. But it makes sense if the Steelers are planning to keep McLendon in the game on some passing downs for several reasons.
McLendon has shown flashes as far as putting pressure on the quarterback and the Steelers want to generate more of an inside pass rush in 2014. McLendon and Heyward, who tied for second on the Steelers with five sacks last season, could make a good pairing as the inside pass-rushers in the nickel defense.
Also, the Steelers don’t have a lot of options after McLendon.
There is no clear-cut starter at defensive end opposite Heyward and the plan – at least for now – may look something like this:
Play Cam Thomas at end when the Steelers are in their base defense and have him and McLendon rotate at tackle when the Steelers go to the nickel.
Find depth among second-year players Brian Arnfelt and Nick Williams as well as the defensive ends that the Steelers draft next week and sign as undrafted free agents.
That, of course, is speculation at this point, and the Steelers’ plan could change depending on the players they add through the draft -- or in free agency by bringing back veteran defensive end Brett Keisel for one more season.
But one thing that seems clear is that the Steelers’ nose tackles won’t just be asked to stop the run in 2014.
“Steve can rush, Cam can rush,” Heyward said, “and we’re looking for them to add more to this defense.”