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Burnett’s impending return brings creativity to Steelers defense

November 14, 2018

Joe Haden seemed to be caught off guard by the question.

The Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback was asked Thursday morning whether the package that features seven defensive backs was still a part of the team’s playbook.

Haden took a second to ponder it.

“I think so,” he said.

Forgive Haden for the uncertainty. After all, the Steelers haven’t used the dollar formation since the season opener - and even then seven defensive backs were on the field for a single play.

For all of the talk about the dollar subpackage being a viable option on certain passing downs and for all of the time devoted to practicing it in training camp, the Steelers haven’t used the formation since early in the first quarter Sept. 9 at Cleveland.

But with veteran strong safety Morgan Burnett nearing a return after a four-game, five-week absence, the Steelers might dust the cobwebs off the dollar when the play the Browns again Sunday at Heinz Field.

Rookie first-round pick Terrell Edmunds moved into the starting strong safety spot because of Burnett’s groin injury, and he’s expected to remain in the lineup. That means Burnett will play in some subpackages, likely the quarters formation (three safeties, three cornerbacks) or dollar.

“He has a unique skill set, and he’s a guy we want to have out on the field,” Haden said. “I think having him back will make it more flexible for us.”

The Steelers gave Burnett a three-year, $14.35 million contract to replace Mike Mitchell in the secondary, with Sean Davis moving to free safety. His arrival as a safety/hybrid linebacker after eight years in Green Bay also was supposed to make up for the loss of inside linebacker Ryan Shazier.

Burnett, though, has been in the training room more than the field. Counting the preseason, he has missed six of the past eight games because of injury. This week, Burnett has practiced on consecutive days for the first time since early September.

Asked how Burnett can help the Steelers, defensive coordinator Keith Butler said, “Tremendously. He’s had a good week of practice. We miss him, and I’m glad he’s back.”

In his absence, the Steelers have used Cameron Sutton as a safety in the quarters package but have been reluctant to deploy the dollar.

“Sometimes game situations predict how much dollar we can play,“Butler said. ”(Burnett) was certainly a big part of that. We had to play the guys we had. Sometimes we changed personnel. Sometimes we didn’t.”

Burnett is equipped to play a hybrid spot in subpackages because of his size. At 6-foot-1, 209 pounds, he’s two inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Sutton.

“He adds a physical presence for us,” outside linebacker Bud Dupree said. “He can play in the box, he can cover guys, be a safety. He’s a big body who can bring it down hill.”

Burnett isn’t the only defensive player expected to return this week. Linebacker L.J. Fort, who excelled in passing downs in Week 5 against Atlanta, could be back from an ankle injury that sidelined him for a game. Fort is an option to play inside linebacker in the quarters package.

The Steelers have the No. 27 ranked pass defense, but they are coming off two of their best games of the season. They held the Falcons to 324 yards in a 41-17 win and limited the Cincinnati Bengals to 275 yards in a 28-21 win. In those games, the Steelers have allowed a combined 14 points in the second half.

Butler, though, isn’t hesitant to mess with what has worked recently.

“We’re going to do the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said. “I think Morgan gives us a little more opportunity to do some things that maybe we haven’t done. I think it will help us. Getting L.J. Back will help us. We feel good going into this game.”

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