Banking on the big nickel: Steelers DE Brett Keisel vs. Raiders RB Darren McFadden

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Substitution packages have become common in the NFL, a way for coaches to enlarge their schematic arsenal, cause opponents to make personnel adjustments and, at times, outsmart themselves. Consider the new defensive wrinkle for the Steelers, which really isn't new at all.

It is called the "big nickel," a package not too dissimilar from the traditional "nickel" that exchanges a defensive lineman for a fifth defensive back, usually in passing situations.

But, in the big nickel, the Steelers bring in an extra defensive back and an extra defensive lineman and take out their two outside linebackers, LaMarr Woodley and Chris Carter. The package is used in third-down situations when the Steelers think an opponent is more likely to run than pass. The idea is to have four 300-pound bodies on the field rather than three.

"It allows us to match, from a personnel standpoint, with skill in the secondary but also maintain our big-body presence in the run game," coach Mike Tomlin said. "We want to be as multiple as we can in terms of dealing with issues with people that want to establish the run-game presence with multiple wideouts on the field."

Taking out Woodley, one of the best pass-rushing linebackers in the league, seems crazy in any situation. But imagine taking out Woodley and James Harrison, if he were healthy?

It's hard to imagine any package being effective without the best sack tandem of linebackers in the NFL on the field. But that, several coaches said, is how the "big nickel" package is designed.

"I don't know how much we'll run it when both those guys are in," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "They try to get James to come out when we have a lead, and he won't come out."

The Steelers trotted out the 4-2-5 alignment on three occasions against the New York Jets -- on third-and-9 in the first quarter, third-and-3 in the second and second-and-7 in the fourth. They did so because the Denver Broncos repeatedly ran the ball out of a three-wide receiver formation a week earlier "so we put a little extra beef up there," linebacker Larry Foote said.

In all three cases , Mark Sanchez threw passes against it.

The package, though, could come in handy today against the Oakland Raiders and running back Darren McFadden, who is just as likely to catch the ball as run with it. In two games, McFadden has carried 26 times for 54 yards, a paltry 2.1-yard average. But he also has caught 15 passes for 105 yards, including a team-record 13 for 86 yards in the season opener against the San Diego Chargers.

McFadden, however, has never quite fulfilled the vast promise he had when he was drafted in the first round in 2008 from Arkansas. But injuries have been a big part of that.

"They're very good and versatile, in terms of how they attack people," Tomlin said. "The utilization of the backs is a critical component of that and one that we have to contend with. It's going to require some work on our part. "

Steelers


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