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Breaking down the Steelers personnel usage in the secondary

As the Steelers are coming out of their bye week and look to roll out more victories for the 2023 season, there are still looming questions when it comes to personnel.

Will Broderick Jones still be in the lineup at left tackle?

How much playing time will Keeanu Benton continue to receive on the defensive line?

Will Joey Porter Jr. get more snaps in the Steelers secondary?

The last of those three questions is quite interesting as Porter had only been used as the third cornerback on the field until the second half of the Steelers Week 5 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. Now that Porter has been on the field for some situations where they were only two cornerbacks, does this mean he will start to receive more playing time?

Answering this question on the most recent episode of The Steelers Preview podcast, Jeff Hartman suggested that the Steelers might see more three cornerback sets using Porter along with a Levi Wallace and Patrick Peterson then what the Steelers have used so far this season. Jeff got some pushback as it was suggested that the Steelers don’t run that many three cornerback sets and have used more three safety looks in their secondary. Thinking this is not necessarily the case, I decided to dive into the numbers to see how the Steelers have used their personnel in the secondary through the first five games.

In order to answer the question, I used the NFL media site which lists every personal grouping and how many snaps they have played. Going through dozens upon dozens of different personnel groups, I searched specifically for the players in the secondary, kept a running tab, and totaled the numbers at the end. It should be noted for this exercise that I specifically looked at player names and not where they were lined up at the snap of the ball as that information was not readily available. For example, Patrick Peterson was always counted as a cornerback while Elijah Riley was always counted as a safety. Whether or not the Steelers deployed players in this manner I cannot say for sure, but this is how they were counted.

When it came to snaps where there were three cornerbacks on the field, the Steelers have played 181 snaps. When it comes to having three safeties on the field, they have played 83 snaps. Additionally, of the snaps by both groupings, 62 of them were when the Steelers had both three cornerbacks and three safeties on the field. Keeping this in mind, this means the Steelers only chose to have three safeties on the field without having three cornerbacks on 21 snaps this season.

Along with these numbers, there are a few other interesting secondary personnel usages to note. The Steelers played one snap where they had three cornerbacks and only one safety on the field while they also had one snap with three safeties and one cornerback on the field. The Steelers have also had three snaps this season where they had three safeties and no cornerbacks on the field. All of these numbers are included in the previous numbers using three cornerbacks or three safeties.

There were two other additional combinations the Steelers had that were not included with the overall numbers. The Steelers have had seven snaps where they used two cornerbacks and one safety while they had two snaps where they had two safeties and one cornerback.

With the Steelers having 181 snaps with three cornerbacks on the field, this means they are averaging 36.2 snaps per game. Since the Steelers have had three cornerbacks on the field for 49% of their defensive snap so far this season, it’s not that the idea of Porter, Wallace, and Peterson on the field more together would not be far-fetched. But if the Steelers did choose this line up even more often than what has been done in the past, it would likely be at the expense of Chandon Sullivan who has played 123 defensive snap so far this season.

Since not all defensive subpackages are created equal, it’s unlikely Sullivan would be shut out of the Steelers defense altogether unless the Steelers chose to replace him someone like Desmond King or Elijah Riley. When the Steelers go to their “big nickel” package, it would be much more likely to see a player like Sullivan playing the inside in order to help stop the run versus Patrick Peterson sliding inside as he has struggled with tackling this season and has already been credited with six or seven missed tackles for the season depending on the source.

So how are the Steelers going to use Joey Porter Jr. moving forward to get him on the field for increased snaps? Will the Steelers use a rotating system between the three cornerbacks on the outside like they appeared to do in the second half of Week 5? Will they continue to try to go with the hot hand when it comes to snaps played? Will we see all three cornerbacks on the field for increased snaps?

To answer these questions, we can either speculate now or make sure we tune in next week as the Steelers travel to Los Angeles to face the Rams.

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