Steelers use big safeties to address Ryan Shazier void

First-round pick Terrell Edmunds gives the Steelers a guy who can move from safety to linebacker in sub packages. Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin likes to reference that, in today's NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers play "sub package football" about 70 percent of the time. Traditional sets with nose tackle and base safeties are becoming dated because of speedy three- and-four-receiver offenses.

Looking through the Steelers' 2018 draft through that lens helps understand why they selected two safeties despite a massive hole at inside linebacker due to Ryan Shazier's injury.

To be sure, the Steelers never were going to replace a talent like Shazier. Roquan Smith was the closest thing, and he went No. 8 overall to the Chicago Bears. The Steelers wanted to move up for inside linebacker Rashaan Evans, but the Tennessee Titans snatched him up at No. 22. After that pick, the inside linebacker market weakened dramatically.

So the Steelers got crafty, drafting players who have experience as sub package linebackers on third downs in Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen.

When Tomlin turned on Edmunds' Virginia Tech tape, he saw a player who handled both safety spots and some linebacker duties on pass-heavy downs.

Tomlin wouldn't be crazy to look at Edmunds' measurables and see shades of a (skinnier) Shazier.

  • Edmunds: 6-foot-1, 217 pounds, 4.47-second 40, 41.5-inch vertical, 134-inch broad jump, 32 3/4-inch arms, 10 1/2-inch hands

  • Shazier: 6-1, 237, 4.4-second 42-inch vertical, 130-inch broad jump, 32 3/8-inch arms, 10-inch hands

"It's probably something indicative in today's NFL -- not only are they capable safeties but in subpackage defense when you start putting DBs in the box, several of these guys have had that in their past," Tomlin said. "We're excited about looking at that as a potential component of our play. Those lines bleed together (in situational football)."

Allen, a fifth-round pick from Penn State, is a 217-pound hitter who's probably best served closer to the line of scrimmage.

"He will strike you," defensive backs coach Tom Bradley said.

Good running games will take advantage of teams using safeties as linebackers too often. But bigger safeties at least give the Steelers options.

The Steelers signed free agent Jon Bostic as a stopgap linebacker opposite starter Vince Williams, and general manager Kevin Colbert has made clear twice on the record that Tyler Matakevich, who suffered a shoulder injury last season, would be in the linebacker mix. L.J. Fort played well in spots late last year.

That didn't stop the Steelers from allowing at least 150 rushing yards in three of the last six games last season, a steep post-Shazier dive for a team that prides itself on preventing 100-yard rushers.

But if the Steelers weren't impressed with the linebackers available while on the clock seven times this week, they clearly prioritized versatility and value over need.

"If there are positions that are available to us when we're picking and we fit and in the right spot, fine -- but we're not gonna reach," Colbert said. "Coach was awesome throughout this process saying let's respect the board, who are the best players available."