The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the New England Patriots—literally, way back in 2011—they did so largely be surprisingly unveiling a coverage scheme that made much greater use of both man coverage and dime personnel to defend Tom Brady’s spread offense approach.
After being bombarded through the air during the AFC Championship game last season, many members of the team, including both players and coaches—even the owner—have talked about wanting to be able to be more multiple in their coverages, with greater flexibility to play in man coverage…you know, for situations like when they play the Patriots.
They have a second-year starter in Artie Burns who is more comfortable in man than zone, and who has been vocal about wanting to play more man. They have a strong safety with cornerback experience, also in his second season, and a slot cornerback who can play man. They went out and signed Joe Haden, a Pro Bowler who has primarily played man with the Browns.
Will they play more man coverage against the Patriots on Sunday? Probably, though it may not be much more than the usual, and will likely focus primarily around select situations, which is how they have employed it throughout this season.
Will they play it more effectively than they have in the past when they have tried to do so and failed? “We’ll see” was the answer from defensive coordinator Keith Butler, with a shrug, a response that does not inspire confidence, though does seem to suggest more man coverage is part of the plan.
The cornerback, at least, seem to be ready and willing to take on the challenge of playing more man coverage. The aforementioned Burns told Will Graves that “it’s best to play man against Tom Brady”, adding, “we knew at some moment in the season, to get through this championship round you’ve got to play physical ball, hands on ball, man-to-man”.
Rookie Cameron Sutton, who may be starting the game due to injuries to Haden and Coty Sensabaugh, is also versed in man coverage and sees it as a tool to defend the Patriots. “We’ve got to play that mind game”, he told Graves. “We can never let the receiver get comfortable out there on the field”.
He talked specifically about presenting variety, saying that they want to avoid “playing the same technique, the same defense each and every play” and “keeping the receivers lined up in front of you off their rhythm”.
That all sounds well and good, but the ultimate proof will be in Sunday’s pudding. While the Steelers have been effective in their limited use of man coverage—primarily in obvious passing situations—this is obviously the biggest test that they have faced all season.