In case you may have been wondering how the Pittsburgh Steelers defense is adjusting to some of the new schematic alterations that have been installed over the course of the offseason, the team’s slate of preseason games has revealed the answer to that question to be, at best, a work in progress.
Especially difficult to adapt has been the implementation of the Cover 2 zone coverage, which uses two high safeties to cover deep halves of the field and demands much of its inside linebackers not only to cover a lot of ground but to quickly diagnose the play as run or pass.
The linebackers have had issues doing both, and there is plenty of evidence to attest to this on tape. Reserve buck linebacker Vince Williams, returning from a hamstring injury, failed to get depth against a tight end who proceeded to split the deep safeties for at 67-yard touchdown pass in the last preseason game.
Earlier in the preseason, safety Shamarko Thomas was slow to rotate over on another long touchdown pass. And play against the Packers helped hold the linebackers close to the line long enough to allow a 30-yard reception on the opening drive behind them.
The implementation of one-gapping along the defensive line has borne its share of fruits, but it, too, has had its warts. All defensive philosophies have their pros and cons, and right now, with the way the Steelers have been executing said philosophies, they are getting a good look at the cons.
Not that they don’t expect that to change.
In spite of the many flaws shown on the defensive side of the ball this season, Williams and other do see progress. “I think when all is said and done we’re going to be pretty solid”, he said.
Veteran safety Will Allen likened the changes on defense to moving on from algebra to calculus. While you are incorporating information from the new system, your mind is still working to retain the information from the old, integrating within it the new information. At times, those two systems can get crossed as the learner experiences growing pains.
The coaching staff certainly has thrown down the gauntlet for this defense as it moves on with Keith Butler as defensive coordinator, asking his players to do things that most of them have not been asked to do before previously in the system. That has not made the transition easy, to be sure.
Not that any of this amounts to an excuse, rather than an explanation. If the preseason is any indication, this defense is going to struggle not just because many of its pieces have not played together, but because those pieces are still adjusting to employing new concepts that they lack first-hand experience running. To be sure, most seem to be less confident in a smooth transition than those who are actually carrying out the defense.