The Steelers pulled an old trick from their defensive playbook against the Cincinnati Bengals when they used four cornerbacks and only one safety in their nickel package -- replacing veteran safety Ryan Clark with rookie cornerback Cortez Allen
The scheme is something defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau uses when the opposing team employs four or more wide receivers or uses three wide receivers with a good receiving tight end.
The Steelers may not have to worry about that tonight against the Cleveland Browns. They are having a hard time finding just one receiver.
"Everybody can't do it," Clark said. "I'm not sure Cincinnati should actually do it, if it actually helps them. Just because you have four [receivers] to put out there doesn't mean it's the best thing for you. But the game is just moving toward that."
The Steelers had not used that special nickel package since Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers, but they trotted it out against the Bengals and used it with great success.
Rookie wide receiver A.J. Green had six catches for 87 yards, including a 43-yard catch and an 11-yard touchdown. But the Steelers held the Bengals other three receivers -- Jerome Simpson, Andre Caldwell and Andrew Hawkins -- to just one catch for 8 yards.
"I felt like the four people we had covering were better than the four people they had out there," Clark said. "And that's what it ended up proving to be."
The idea, LeBeau said, is to use an extra cornerback -- in this case, Allen, their fourth-round draft pick -- instead of a safety because "it's speed on speed. They run faster."
Allen has progressed so quickly that LeBeau has no hesitation using him in any of their pass-defense packages.
"Ever since the New England game, he's been in our plans," LeBeau said. "He delivered. There's a lot of football in front of him. He's just a beginning player, but he's done a good job when we put him in the game."
The Browns top receiver, Mohamed Massaquoi, has dropped to No. 5 on their depth chart and missed the past two games with a concussion. Joshua Cribbs is having his best receiving season as a professional -- 29 catches, 358 yards and 4 touchdowns -- but he has not been targeted the past two games. He has been observed spending more time at pregame tailgates than catching passes from quarterback Colt McCoy.
That has created room for rookie Greg Little, their second-round pick, to emerge as the leading receiver with 50 catches and 513 yards. But Little has six drops in the past two games -- one of the reasons the Browns lead the league in drops (40).
The Steelers have not allowed a 100-yard receiver in the past 17 games, despite facing the likes of Pierre Garcon, Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Wes Welker, Dwayne Bowe and A.J. Green, though Johnson and Green had games ended by injuries. And they have held four of the past five quarterbacks they have faced under 200 yards passing. That is why they rank No. 1 in total defense, No. 2 against the pass, in the NFL.