Steelers' hybrid defenders want to confuse QBs, but not each other

Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers safety Sean Davis thought he had finally arrived at a point of predictability in his career. In his first three seasons, Davis played nickel corner, strong safety and free safety.

Davis was welcoming a second full season as a confident free safety -- until he found himself at dime linebacker in the second preseason game, lined up against Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

"I still do it all," said Davis with a smile. "Still trying to hone that skill set."

This has become a basic tenet of the Steelers' defense: The more you can do.

This month, the hybrid-heavy Steelers have shown Davis in the linebacker role Morgan Burnett played last year, slot corner Mike Hilton dropping to safety, and Alliance of American Football pickup Kameron Kelly playing both of those roles. Cam Sutton can play slot or outside cornerback. Mark Barron became a safety-turned-linebacker years ago.

The goal is to confuse quarterbacks who want to spread them out with five wideouts.

"But not confuse our own guys," Davis said.

That's key for a defense that struggled with communication early last season. Confusion made the secondary look clueless in Week 2 as quarterback Patrick Mahomes tied a single-game Chiefs record with six touchdown passes.

Mahomes' return to Heinz Field last week was far quieter. The reigning MVP went 2-of-5 for 11 yards in two series that ended in a punt and a fumble caused by safety Terrell Edmunds.

Sure, the Steelers weren't expecting Kansas City to get creative with preseason play calling, but this defense is far more confident -- and talkative -- than a year ago.

"That's just a short-term preview of the type of heat we’re trying to bring all season," said Edmunds of Saturday's performance. "We're trying to go out there together, fight together, win together, and hopefully we don't, but we'll lose together."

The early defensive returns are positive with Devin Bush making plays as advertised, Edmunds looking more comfortable in Year 2 and roles solidified with Joe Haden and Steven Nelson manning the outside corner spots.

But for a 2018 group that ranked tied for first with 52 sacks and 28th in turnover margin at minus-7, splash plays are paramount. The Steelers hope improved communication coupled with an array of defensive packages -- up to seven defensive backs at once as hybrid linebacker-safeties -- will yield better results.

The defensive backfield goes by this motto when it comes to pre-snap communicating: If we're all wrong, we're all right.

Hilton cites early season injuries as a hindrance to that plan for parts of last year.

"We're all comfortable," Hilton said. "We've got a lot of guys who are versatile. We've got a room full of guys who are able to make plays at different positions. That helps our defense. We ask each other questions. We pay attention to what each other is doing. We're confident in where guys can play. It just makes us versatile. It definitely feels more real."