The Optimist’s Take: Cover 2 Take Two

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Will the Steelers further expand upon their installation of the Cover 2 defensive look that began last season?

The Cover 2 defense, sometimes referred to as the Tampa 2 defense due to the fact that it was most popularized by the Buccaneers’ smothering defense at the turn of the millennium, is a look that can actually trace its origins back to Pittsburgh, when a young defensive back by the name of Tony Dungy once played, and later briefly coached, under Chuck Noll.

Of course, the Steelers themselves have not been a Cover 2 defense for some time now, and the fact of the matter is that there simply are no Cover 2 teams any longer because the way that the game has evolved, both on the field and in the rule book, negates the ability to do that. Instead, it is now simply one look among many that is broken out in specific situations that cater to its strengths.

Under Dick LeBeau, the Steelers have primarily relied upon a Cover 3 look, as well as a Cover 1, but head coach Mike Tomlin spent an inordinate amount of time with defensive backs coach Carnell Lake and the secondary themselves demonstrating the principles of the Cover 2—which he helped drill into the Tampa Bay defensive backs that he coached for a time under Dungy.

For as much emphasis as was seemingly put on that zone look during the spring and summer last year, the Steelers did not necessarily turn to it a great deal during the season, although they did certainly use it in certain situations, and obviously with more frequency than in recent years.

We are now in the second season under Keith Butler as the defensive coordinator, in the second season in which it is clear that the base defense is now a nickel sub-package. The level of understanding among all contributing defenders should be greater, which means that they should be counted upon to execute a variety of looks with greater ease.

Some of the issue in the execution of the Cover 2 look, and the subsequent decision to use the look, stemmed from confusion or inconsistency in carrying out assignments. That should be cleared up now that it has become a more standard defensive principle for the Steelers, which means that it should be used more. And the more successful it is, the more it might be used.

It is worth remembering that they replaced half of their starting secondary between the preseason finale and the season opener, so it goes without saying that there was some instability involved, and that no doubt weighed on the decision to rely more upon what was more familiar.

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