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Tim Benz

Tim Benz: Steelers have revamped views of defense before

| Monday, May 14, 2018, 12:33 a.m.
Steelers fifth-round pick Marcus Allen practices during rookie minicamp Friday, May 11, 2018, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers fifth-round pick Marcus Allen practices during rookie minicamp Friday, May 11, 2018, at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Steelers first round round pick Terrell Edmunds during rookie mini camp Friday, May 11, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers first round round pick Terrell Edmunds during rookie mini camp Friday, May 11, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Steelers new defensive backs coach Tom Bradley takes with first round pick Terrell Edmunds during rookie mini camp Friday, May 11, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers new defensive backs coach Tom Bradley takes with first round pick Terrell Edmunds during rookie mini camp Friday, May 11, 2018 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

It seems like just yesterday.

Until you realize it was 25 years ago, and we are all getting really old if we can remember it clearly.

But back in the early 90s, the Steelers pioneered the movement of signing and drafting players as outside linebackers in their 3-4 defensive scheme who were previously ends in a 4-3 scheme.

Kevin Greene was one in free agency. Jason Gildon and Joey Porter were two in the draft.

Largely, the job is the same. The title of the occupation is just different. As a 4-3 end or a 3-4 outside linebacker you go get the other team's quarterback.

So is what the Steelers are doing now with their safety-stocked defense really all that different?

Because it feels like it is being met with skepticism, though the premise is the same. Does it matter if a player is called a linebacker or a safety if he performs the same duties regardless of the label on the back of the football card?

If the guy is about 6-foot-1 and weighs somewhere between 210 and 230 pounds, does it matter if the letter "S" appears next to his name instead of "ILB"?

Either way, he's patrolling the middle of the field, covering ground laterally and dropping, running, hitting and tackling running backs in support. He's covering all forms of eligible receivers on intermediate routes, coming up the middle on an occasional blitz and, hopefully, intercepting a pass from time to time.

That's probably a gross oversimplification. However, it's also overcomplicating matters to draw up a defense where players can't bleed over between positions.

It is funny that for years there's been a vocal crowd who wanted to move Ryan Shazier to safety, but grabbing safeties in Terrell Edmunds, Marcus Allen and Morgan Burnett and converting them to virtual inside linebackers is being viewed by many as a massive difference?

After all, this is a fan base — at least that rapidly greying segment I alluded to earlier — that can remember converting Carnell Lake from linebacker to safety and, eventually, cornerback.

So are the Steelers breaking the mold again with this view of procuring and deploying personnel in the middle of their defense as opposed to how they did it so skillfully on the edge in the mid-90s?

"We're not ready to write a story in that regard," coach Mike Tomlin said at rookie minicamp this weekend. "We're just trying to strengthen ourselves for the fights that lie ahead in '18."

Well no offense, Mike, but I do have a story to write which is what I am doing right now. So bear with me.

Because this story is the most important angle to the Steelers in 2018. Basically, can the Steelers scheme themselves into a better defensive position than where they finished last year?

They lost a cornerstone inside linebacker in Shazier because of injury. The free agent market didn't yield a suitable replacement at appropriate dollars. Their attempts to trade up in the draft to get a talented inside linebacker were thwarted.

So deploying a defense with often times three or four "safeties" on the field seems to be their next best option.

"They definitely gave me an idea of that," said Edmunds of his pre-draft discussions with the Steelers.

"We feel like we got some young people that are capable of helping us," Tomlin said.

The coach got his first look at some of those players and where he can place them this weekend at the rookie minicamp. Burnett and Sean Davis weren't on hand. But Edmunds and Allen were, and Tomlin dotted them all over the place.

Edmunds said he played both safety roles, including some deep center-field responsibilities. He also mentioned playing "a few little linebacker positions," but no corner. On Friday, Allen said he played free safety, which is something he feels capable of doing after his time at Penn State.

"I played to the boundary. I played in the post. I played everywhere," Allen said.

A potential drawback from so many players learning so many positions at once is confusion and miscommunication. Yet, during the first weekend, Tomlin actually saw that as a strong point of Edmunds and Allen.

"I like what I'm hearing from them prior to the snap," said Tomlin. "I like to hear a lot of pre-snap chatter. Both guys are providing that."

Edmunds said he and Allen "went back and forth" making the calls.

As Tomlin said earlier, he's not willing to write the story yet about this new defensive approach. He doesn't need to. It was already written by this team in the early 90s with how it cultivated its outside linebacker talent.

Now let's just see if this story's ending is as good.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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