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New packages give Steelers' reserves chance to play

| Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, 9:57 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers strong safety Shamarko Thomas tackles Packers running back Eddie Lacy in the first quarter Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015, at Heinz Field.

Three weeks ago, a new personnel package got Robert Golden onto the field.

This past week, Shamarko Thomas was the playing-time beneficiary of an as-yet-seen-before wrinkle.

Vince Williams, Daniel McCullers and Sean Spence each have “clocked in” for plays or series for reasons not related to an injury of a player at their position.

All are examples of a philosophy that coach Mike Tomlin might describe as having “all hands on deck” and into the pile when it comes to the team's defense.

“We're always looking to be inclusive, in terms of the number of guys who we can utilize in our defense, particularly as the season wears on,” Tomlin said.

“It provides something fresh, it provides an opportunity for someone and it provides a look that maybe is not on video. All of those things, I think, are reasons why you include new people and new schematic approaches this time of year.”

The latest example was Thomas, who hadn't gotten onto the field on defense the previous six games. But he saw brief action Sunday at Baltimore in a rare look with three safeties and two cornerbacks (“big nickel”).

Thomas blitzed on both snaps he played.

“I showed (coaches) in practice I could (excel at) it,” Thomas said, “coming off the edge and having good timing off the edge.”

According to statistics provided by the NFL, the Steelers have used 243 defensive personnel groupings this season — that might sound like a lot, but it ranks as the sixth-fewest in the league.

Six of the top seven most common groups of 11 players on the field for any given play this season represent a nickel package. Another common defense is their “base” (a nose tackle, only four defensive backs).

But the Steelers have increasingly turned to the dime over the past three weeks after not showing it since the season opener. The Steelers have used the dime — in which Golden enters as the sixth defensive back — on roughly four dozen snaps this season, about three-quarters of which have come in the past three games.

Outside linebacker Arthur Moats said that during the early stages of his career while he was playing for the Bills, there were no positions where players rotated and very few personnel changes made in subpackages.

“The guys who were going to play were the main guys every week and you kind of knew that,” said Moats, whose position has been in a strict rotation this season.

“I feel like with us having multiple guys playing and even guys coming off the bench with certain packages, it helps as far as keeping everybody more mentally in tune because if you're sitting for 10, 12 weeks and you're not playing, it's easy to get down on yourself and easy to kind of check out.

“So for us to always have some kind of (new) package every week that involves somebody (different), It makes everybody feel more accountable about it, too. ... You're locked in and ready to play.”

Keeping bodies fresh and the focus keen are advantages to using as much of the roster as possible, but there are strategic advantages, too.

“It makes the quarterback check out of things and adjust when there's something he hasn't seen yet,” Thomas said.

With 15 weeks of tape to look back on, that's not insignificant.

“Whatever we can do to create a different look that a team hasn't seen and kind of try to throw them off, it's a plus for us,” Golden said.

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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