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Mike Tomlin open to 'dramatic changes' at crucial time for Steelers D

"We are still very much putting together critical pieces," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin says. "We are still highly involved in free agency. We still have a draft to prepare for." Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Maybe he’s just in the tinkering mood this time of year, but coach Mike Tomlin’s willingness to overhaul his fifth-ranked Pittsburgh Steelers defense is a major theme to watch this offseason.

“I’m not opposed to dramatic changes,” Tomlin said from last week’s NFL owners meetings in Orlando.

Tomlin isn’t listing specifics just yet, but he didn’t need them. The way he discussed football trends only punctuated his exploratory state.

Tomlin covered just about everything in his media sessions, from the slow demise of base defense with a nose tackle to combating speedy running backs in the “quick screen game” with speed on the other side. He broke down how free-agent addition Morgan Burnett won’t be pigeonholed into a position, free or strong safety, entering offseason work. And he touted the lack of NFL experience from new defensive backs coach Tom Bradley, a longtime college coach, as an asset for creativity and relatability to players entering the league.

All plans might as well be set in sand.

“I think that is the appropriate mentality to have,” said Tomlin of potential changes. “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.”

The Steelers face no deadlines for changes in a “continually evolving” defensive scheme, Tomlin said. And, to be sure, don’t expect All-Pro defensive end Cam Heyward to start dropping into coverage on third down. Much will remain the same.

But the addition of assistants Bradley and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar -- along with the release of veteran defensive backs Mike Mitchell, William Gay and Robert Golden – signals Tomlin is open to new input that might shape a nimbler attack.

Tomlin is right that his defensive plans are fluid. Re-signing James Harrison to a two-year deal last offseason gave the Steelers a proven pass rusher, but by the time the season started, the Steelers wanted their outside linebackers to drop into coverage more often. That pushed Harrison out of the plans.

Perhaps this year Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt get more chances to rush. That will depend on the matchup, what the Steelers do in the draft and where the weaknesses lie along the starting lineup.

The Steelers absolutely have to fix their rushing defense, which allowed at least 150 yards in three of their last six games last season. Cleaning up communication issues, particularly on plays in the flat (see: Jacksonville playoff loss) and getting closer to replacing Ryan Shazier would help, too.

What’s clear, though, is the Steelers value positional flexibility more than ever. General manager Kevin Colbert said second-year cornerback Cam Sutton could be an option for the slot or the outside next season. Sean Davis can play both safety spots. And a new linebacker, likely found in the draft, should have the versatility to help cover tight ends, apply quarterback pressure and stomp the run.

“I am always a little bit hesitant to draw conclusions from a deadline standpoint because there is so much time,” Tomlin said. “We are still very much putting together critical pieces. We are still highly involved in free agency. We still have a draft to prepare for. I think really the culmination of the draft formally kind of starts that process of information being collected over an extended period of time. Yes, we have made some decisions in terms of things and directions that we anticipate or we know that we are going to go in.”

The Steelers return five key defensive backs with two years or less of NFL experience. Maximizing their potential is crucial for Tomlin’s 12th season. With three decades of college experience, Bradley’s presence should help.

“We have a lot of young players in the positions that need to grow,” Tomlin said. “The ways that they are teaching in college today is different than when they were teaching when I coached college football a number of years ago. The constraints in which they work in terms of time. The utilization of technology is a teach tool. All of those things are interesting things that [Bradley] has had direct involvement with in terms of coaching the young people.”