How does a linebacker play man coverage on a wide receiver? Very carefully. That’s how linebacker Joe Schobert broke things down Thursday afternoon. Schobert described the mental checklist he goes through when manning up a wide receiver.
“Sometimes you get stuck with things,” he said via audio provided by the team. “If I’m lined up on a receiver, I got to know where my help is. Because I’m not going to try to play a receiver man to the man, or like a zero coverage. I know where my help is, try to funnel him towards help and not let them get, beat me to my leverage. And that’s the basic principles of defense when like a guy like me, if I ever get stuck on a receiver or something like that.”
For Pittsburgh, linebackers on receivers have been a sore spot for the team for far too long. It’s happened this season, Devin Bush on Davante Adams was an uncomfortable regular occurrence in Week 4, but it’s yet to hurt Pittsburgh the way it has in the past. Jon Bostic on Keenan Allen, Robert Spillane on Jarvis Landry, all the recurring nightmares you’ve worked so hard to push out of your brain.
To give some grace to the Steelers, it’s hard to play defense in the NFL. A chess game you’re always on the verge of losing. Repeatedly anticipating what an offense will do and then adjusting based off what they actually do. No defense is perfect. There’s a reason why offenses score more points than ever before. So when Pittsburgh are in those situations, understanding leverage and help – as Schobert said – are crucial. If there’s a safety spinning down from a two-high look, play outside leverage and keep the receiver inside. If it’s Cover 2, force him to the flat where the CB will be waiting.
Schobert said the only time leverage isn’t a factor is “zero coverage,” meaning a Cover 0, all-out blitz. And any DC who puts a LB in that situation to cover isn’t going to be a DC long.
“If it’s zero coverage, I should be blitzing. If anybody has a linebacker and coverage and zero coverage across the NFL, I don’t know what kind of scheme they’re running.”
The mission of a defense is to limit the number of times a linebacker mans up on a receiver. Ideally, that figure is zero. And for a more zone-heavy 2021 version of the Steelers’ defense makes this less of an issue, though the increased amount of zone has led to other defensive issues.