As we all know, whenever the Pittsburgh Steelers lose a game, they have the great luxury of having an endless resource of prime defensive coordinator minds to supply them with the ways that they can fix all of their problems. Message boards all across the internet, not to mention Steelers bars around the world—anywhere two Steelers fans are, really—can play host to these insightful minds who know better than the coaching staff. Myself included, of course.
As we all know, the reason that the Steelers lost to the Patriots on Sunday is because they were unwilling to check New England’s wide receivers in man coverage, preferring to stay in their comfort zone, literally, with the zone coverages that they have used for the bulk of the season.
According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, however, the season that the Steelers shied away from man coverage against the Patriots is because it didn’t work. He Tweeted last night that the defense “went to man coverage 3 times and got burned each time by Brady. Stopped doing it after that”, according to a team source.
He added that the “biggest culprit in man coverage was nickel back William Gay, who struggled [with Julian Edelman]”. So if you were looking for an answer as to why the Steelers didn’t do what they obviously needed to do in order to win the game, the answer is that they tried to do that and it failed spectacularly each time that they tried.
Now, that doesn’t mean that change is not coming. The Steelers have drafted cornerbacks in the top two rounds of the past two drafts who theoretically have the skill set to consistently engage in man coverage, with Artie Burns their first-round draft pick in 2016 and Senquez Golson, who has been on injured reserve the past two years a second-round pick in 2015, who would inherit Gay’s slot role should he take the field.
Left outside cornerback Ross Cockrell has also shown some ability to be a man coverage corner, even shadowing an opposing team’s top target for large stretches of a game from time to time. With the secondary getting more experience under their belt, that is only more likely to happen going forward.
2016 was really the stepping stone, a new starting point for the secondary, as should go without saying, considering that they transitioned to a pair of rookie starters in the middle of the year, and Cockrell himself is in his first season as a starter.
Everybody who has been beating the table about the Steelers’ need to disrupt the Patriots’ receivers at the line of scrimmage and get them off their timing by playing press man coverage are not wrong. But they don’t appear to understand that they really were not in a position to be able to effectively run that scheme at a high level just yet. New England exposed them when they tried to on Sunday.
Maybe next year. The two teams have another meeting for the regular season. “I base our matchups on what our people are capable of doing and going well”, Mike Tomlin noted in answering a question about man coverage and their 2011 win over the Patriots, when they had Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Gay, and Cortez Allen as a rookie. They don’t have an Ike Taylor right now.