The return of Damontae Kazee could add another wrinkle to the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Likely to play for the first time this weekend, Kazee could become the Steelers’ third safety. It’s a package they relied on during pre-season but abandoned once Kazee broke his arm in the final and other defensive back injuries limited the schematic versatility of the defense.
Speaking at his weekly Tuesday press conference earlier today, Mike Tomlin highlighted the benefits of putting three safeties on the field.
“In this era of specialization, specialization particularly defensively to match attacking personnel groups is an important element,” he said via the team’s YouTube channel. “Three-safety or big-nickel defenses as a lot of people call it, is one of the fashionable things for fighting two tight groups of personnel and especially when one of those tight ends is a vertical type and a guy that’s a wide receiver. So we explored some things and that was a plus for us and it’s reasonable to expect us to continue in that vein.
Pittsburgh’s three-safety package isn’t new with Kazee but it has expanded. In recent years, like 2021, it’s been a hyper-specialized package against one-receiver personnel, with the Steelers removing a corner and putting a third safety like Miles Killebrew on the field. In preseason with Kazee, the Steelers used him as a variation nickel, pulling off a nose tackle for a third safety. According to our chart, the Steelers used this “big nickel” package Tomlin referred to seven snaps throughout the preseason.
It might not seem like a lot, but six of those snaps came in the preseason finale, all with Kazee, clearly a package the team loved and were going to use in the season. While the small sample sizes and preseason stats are questionable, save for one knee, opposing offenses averaged just 1.8 yards per game against the Steelers’ big nickel.
With Kazee out, there was no Steeler to fill the void. Killebrew is a pure special teamer who only plays when he has to or in obvious running situations like goal line staff. Tre Norwood is smart and versatile, but not the same tackle or run defender as Kazee, making him a worse option against multiple tight sets. According to our graph, this “big nickel” was used against 12 staff members in five snaps.
How often Pittsburgh uses this package will depend on the opponent. Teams that rely on three-receiver sets will keep the big nickel off the field while teams that use multiple tight ends will increase its use. A team like Baltimore, with a superior receiving threat like Mark Andrews, will see the Steelers respond a lot with Kazee. For this Sunday, the New Orleans Saints are using a fair amount of multiple, tight sets while Taysom Hill is an offensive chess piece that can force Pittsburgh to use the same creativity to defend him.