The perception is that when it comes to defense, Mike Tomlin is a 3-4 guy. That he believes in the scheme that was in place when he took over the Steelers in 2007, and because it was successful back then he will work to make it successful now.
After the last couple of days at the NFL Owners Meetings in Orlando, this particular perception doesn't seem to be his reality.
While meeting with the media on Monday, Tomlin was asked whether he expected to use this offseason to make any schematic changes to a defense that seemed to be improving steadily over the course of the 2017 regular season until it was racked by the serious injury to inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.
"I am not opposed to (making changes)," said Tomlin. "That is the mentality I go into each year with in terms of our evolution, or how we evolve from an Xs and Os standpoint, or a utilization of players standpoint. We are just beginning that journey in terms of analyzing what we have done, putting together this current crop of guys and charting out a path in terms of what we are going to be in 2018. I am not opposed to dramatic changes. I think that is the appropriate mentality to have. We may change in dramatic ways, we may not. It depends on what the totality of the variables of totality mean for us. But I think it's great to have an attitude that's not resistant to it."
Upon reading the above paragraph, it's likely that a segment of Steelers Nation will immediately have visions of a switch to a 4-3 base defense dancing in their heads, but that wasn't what Tomlin was referencing when he talked about change/evolution.
"Base defense doesn't exist anymore," said Tomlin. "We play (base defense) in the high 20s, 26- or 27-percent of the time. It's about sub-package football, so the linebacker position is important in the 3-4, no doubt. But all of us globally are not running base defense that much anymore, and that is just the reality of it."
Earlier this offseason, the Steelers embraced that reality when they dipped into the free agent market and signed former Packers safety Morgan Burnett.
"I like his versatility," said Tomlin about Burnett. "We had pretty good knowledge on him when he came out in the draft. We liked the guy. We liked the player. Since that time, I think he has broadened his skill-set. He has played some sub-package linebacker and things of that nature. We're excited about getting him into the fold and utilizing that versatility, particularly in some of our sub-packages."
Sub-package football is what it's all about in the NFL these days, because offenses have the ability to be multiple and attack a defense in varied ways without necessarily changing the personnel on the field. A defense has to be able to stop the run, rush the passer, and defend the deep ball, all without changing personnel.
"In today's NFL you have to be multiple," said Tomlin. "We intend to be. What that looks like as we sit here today, I don't know. I know we have some candidates. (Another reporter) was asking about Morgan Burnett. Morgan Burnett has done some of that in Green Bay, I have seen it on video. We'll see where the road leads us."
Wherever the road leads the Steelers in 2018, they will be traveling it without their most dynamic defensive player. General Manager Kevin Colbert said at the NFL Scouting Combine that Ryan Shazier will not play in 2018 as he continues to rehab after injuring his spine during the Dec. 4 game in Cincinnati and then undergoing stabilization surgery.
What separated Shazier from other NFL inside linebackers was his speed, which allowed him to be a special player against both the run and the pass. Replacing that will be difficult. Trying to find his mix of skills in one individual will be next to impossible.
"It's just really how you identify speed, quickness," said Tomlin when asked about that search. "Quick-to-speed is an asset in some of the coverage things. Matchups, possession downs against running backs and against athletic tight ends, it's helpful. It's helpful in chase circumstances and some of the perimeter game that is permeating through football these days, whether it's the quick screen game or things of that nature. It's an asset obviously, but it's not used all of the time."
NOT CELEBRATING CELEBRATIONS
For the 2017 season, the NFL relaxed its celebration rules, and the result was some on-field post-touchdown choreography seemingly aimed at competing with a Broadway musical. As evidenced by the exchange with a reporter that's detailed below, Tomlin isn't a fan of such displays.
How do you feel about teams doing team celebrations after touchdowns?
TOMLIN: I don't like it, personally, but we've relaxed the rules in that area. It's for the entertainment of the fans, so I respect it on that level. But personally, I don't like it.
TOMLIN: Because I just think it takes away from the game. It's not a good look for young people. Young people aren't allowed to celebrate in that way, so why should we?
What goes through your mind when you see one of those team celebrations?
TOMLIN: Nothing. The next possession. I'm preparing. I'm moving on to be honest with you. I don't even see them. I see them on television. In-game, you're moving on.
What do you say to the people who think it's harmless fun, it's a great highlight, it makes kids more interested?
TOMLIN: I'm sure that's the reason why some of those rules were relaxed. It's just my own personal feeling that young people can't do it – kids can't do it in high school games – so why do we?