Skip to main content

By any means necessary

The Steelers' defense has been figuring out different ways to play it in a given situation since September.

It's also been getting better.

"Whatever it takes, man," defensive end and defensive captain Cam Heyward offered. "I think we just have to be an ever-evolving defense.

"We adapt to every situation."

The changes that have been enacted by the defense already this season have included:

-Rotating Coty Sensabaugh and Artie Burns at right cornerback beginning on Sept. 24 in Tampa and eventually replacing Burns, the starter at the position at the outset of the season, with Sensabaugh.

-Using L.J.Fort as the lone inside linebacker in the six-defensive backs sub-package, a position that had been occupied by Vince Williams.

-Playing the base defense more than they had in the past against three-wide receivers sets "a lot more than we usually do," nickel cornerback Mike Hilton maintained after a Nov. 8 win over Carolina.

-Rotating veteran Morgan Burnett and rookie No.1 pick Terrell Edmunds in recent weeks at strong safety in the base defense (both play in the six-defensive backs sub-package).

-And replacing Sensabaugh with safety Jordan Dangerfield in the base defense last Sunday in Jacksonville when the Jaguars went with a one-wide receiver formation that included either three tight ends or two tight ends and a fullback. Dangerfield played 10 defensive snaps in Jacksonville after having played 11 in the previous nine games combined (none on six occasions).

The Steelers prepare for the week 12 matchup against the Denver Broncos.

The Steelers even dabbled with a seven-defensive backs sub-package for three snaps on Oct. 28 against Cleveland, something they had practiced extensively in the spring and during training camp.

Options were limited initially due to Burnett, Hilton and cornerback Joe Haden all missing time due to injury in the early going.

But since Burnett returned after missing a four-game stretch from Sept. 24 through Oct. 14, coordinator Keith Butler and the defensive staff have had more freedom to play multiple players when and where they see fit.

The Steelers have allowed 21 points or fewer in each game of their current six-game winning streak and they've surrendered less than 300 total net yards in five or their last six games.

"When we get guys healthy and you're able to do different things, then you get to explore different things and have that type of diversity," Heyward said. "It allows us to play a lot of guys."

Which means the Steelers might rely on a personnel group they haven't featured previously this season when they take on the Broncos on Sunday in Denver.

"We'll see," Heyward said. "Denver's a different team and it's a hard place to play so you have to have a lot of people that can play multiple positions and be able to rotate."

That versatility and adaptability hasn't developed by accident.

And those are traits that aren't exclusive to the defense.

"We don't plug gaps," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We don't plug leaks. We're continually globally working to grow and grow in all areas. And that allows us to be what we need to be when we need to be it.

"Sometimes we're capable of walking into a stadium and being a run-dominant team. Sometimes we're capable of stepping into a stadium and throwing it every down. Sometimes we step into a stadium and we're capable of no-huddle, sometimes we huddle often.

"You better be versatile in the National Football League in all three phases, and we work continually to be."