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 pessimist’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?
There has been talk over recent years of the Steelers’ intentions of installing a variety of different looks from time to time, and they have had, at best, mixed success in actually being implemented. The outside zone blocking scheme was nearly entirely abandoned, while the inclusion of more one-gap assignments for the defensive line has become a staple. The integration of more Cover 2 is currently somewhere in between, and that is likely where it will remain.
While nobody has ever contended that the Steelers are angling to convert to a traditional Cover 2 defense of the sort that Mike Tomlin implemented as the defensive backs coach for Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl team in the early 2000s, it did seem, as he worked with the defensive backs personally last summer, that he had the intention of incorporating it fairly liberally, something that did not exactly happen.
The team seemed to struggle adapting to it during the preseason, during which they used it a fair bit more than ended up carrying over into the regular season, and it may have even helped cost Shamarko Thomas his opportunity for the starting free safety position.
But the secondary seems to be in little better position to integrate that strategy now than they were last year, particularly when considering the minimal experience that many of these players have, with only one cornerback of significant experience, and only two with any meaningful playing time. There is also a transition at the free safety spot that Thomas failed to occupy.
Another area that the cornerbacks struggled to implement last season was the requisite physicality at the line to press and force an inside release that helps to funnel the offense into the coverage zones of the scheme, which too often led to plays leaking on the perimeters and resulting in splash plays.
It would not appear that the team has the cornerbacks this year to implement that any better, with William Gay typically routinely playing off the ball, and, as you’ll see later today, Ross Cockrell substantially lacking in physicality.
This is all not to mention the premium that is placed on this alignment to get pressure with four defenders. While the Steelers put up good sack numbers last year, most of that was produced by blitzing, which limits the Cover 2 look. If Pittsburgh can’t improve their ability to pressure with their front four players, don’t expect to see an uptick in this look compared to last season.