I don’t mean to shock you, but last year’s number show that the Pittsburgh Steelers are among the most prolific zone-coverage defenses in the league. That is according to Pro Football Focus anyway, who recently published an article that looks at some of the coverages used by NFL teams and who uses them the most, and the least.
It was rather predictable that the Steelers turned in a very high percentage of zone coverage snaps. In fact, they used base zone coverages on more than 75 percent of all of their coverage snaps during the 2016 season, which was the second-most in the league, behind only the Panthers, who lost both of their starting cornerbacks from the previous season and relied on a bunch of rookies.
It is interesting to note, by the way, that while a couple of teams came close, not a single team in the league spent even half of their snaps in coverage playing in man. I do think that that is a point worth bringing up here, because I feel that there is an easily distorted perception of what the average ‘man coverage’ defense actually looks like. It’s not an every-down thing, and it certainly won’t be for the Steelers.
But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Pittsburgh potentially fall outside of the top five in terms of playing the most zone snaps if they are truly serious about incorporating more man coverage concepts. To be quite honest, we have gotten a lot of mixed signals on that front depending on which player or coach you ask—sometimes even depending on when you ask the question of the same person.
According to the site’s data, the Steelers also led the league in specifically using the Cover-2 defense, which is something that they have been incorporating more and more over the course of the past couple of years. That should be no surprise given Mike Tomlin’s background.
Still, that grand total only accounted for 26.7 percent of the Steelers’ snaps in coverage. While they didn’t post all of the data for every team, I would imagine that we would see a large percentage for Cover-3 looks as well, and they have gotten more diverse with their Cover-1 and Quarters coverages as well.
There is one more thing that I would like to point out. According to the data from PFF, the Titans actually played more man coverage than anybody in the league last season at very nearly 50 percent. That would seem to go against the conventional wisdom surrounding Dick LeBeau, but the reality is, as the data shows, he will play in man coverage if he feels he has the players capable of playing it.
It will be interesting to be able to revisit these numbers after the 2017 season to see how they compare. Multiple coaches have gone on record speaking of possible changes, but will we actually see them change things up once the players are on the field?