I hope you enjoyed the press man coverage that Dick LeBeau used almost exclusively this past Sunday against the New England Patriots because I know I certainly did. LeBeau has been visibly laying that ground work of this switch ever since James Harrison has been sidelined as the Steelers have been forced to play more dime and big nickel with 6 defensive backs over the last 4 weeks and perhaps even longer. The real early sign that LeBeau had this up his sleeve was against the Cardinals two weeks ago when rookie Cortez Allen saw the field for 10 snaps in the dime. Up until that point, Allen only had 3 defensive snaps to his credit. Not surprising for a rookie cornerback in a LeBeau system.
The other key cog in the dime has been safety Ryan Mundy. Remember all those snaps he received in the preseason? Remember how conditioned he seemed and how well he played? LeBeau certainly did and he sat on him until week 5 against the Titans. Up until that game Mundy had just one defensive snap to his credit as the Steelers only played base and nickel in their first 4 games with zone coverage under cover 2 and 3.
We all should have seen this coming a mile away looking back at the evidence though. Was this sudden change all because of the injury to Harrison? It seems easy to point to that but you have to remember that because of the lockout the Steelers had little time to evaluate young talent and change schemes on a veteran team. Quite a few of the re-signed players like Ike Taylor and William Gay were also not allowed to practice until the new CBA was ratified. Bryant McFadden, Curtis Brown and Allen all also missed time due to injuries and Keenan Lewis was still approaching the proverbial corner that he seems to have turned now. As much as LeBeau may have wanted to implement this new press man coverage to start the season, he couldn\’t. There was not enough time or healthy bodies. The injury to Harrison probably sped the transition up this year, but I am willing to bet the Patriots game was the target date all along to break this out. It just makes too much sense.
Many will ask why didn\’t the Steelers put this in last season. The answer is quite simple. They didn\’t have the personnel last year to run man coverage outside Taylor and Gay. Gay has taken a beating over the years from the fan base, but he has always shown good man to man characteristics. Just look at one of those three touchdowns Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski scored last year. Gay was in his hip pocket and likely was able to check his ID on that play. Gronkowski ran a great route and Tom Brady put that ball through the eye of the needle. That was a great pitch and catch.
Outside of Taylor and Gay though, that was it last year. You know why the Cardinals sent McFadden back to us on draft day prior to last year? McFadden could not play man under then defensive coordinator Bill Davis. McFadden is a zone outside corner that can tackle. End of story. Anthony Madison was also the 4th cornerback on the team last year and while he was one hell of a special teams player, a man cover corner he was not. Lewis was still battling his demons and Joe Burnett had long been jettisoned. The Steelers made it to the Super Bowl because they could stop the run and did not have to play many good, patient quarterbacks on their way to it in the playoffs. Had they met the Patriots again in the playoffs, they would have had to of won a shootout. You see what happened when they ran into Aaron Rodgers and they still almost pulled it out regardless.
Back to McFadden. The writing was on the wall the switch was coming when McFadden had recovered from his hamstring injury and was still made inactive despite never being on the injury report. He did not fit what LeBeau had in the works and thus was not getting first team reps because of it. Lewis and Gay better fit what LeBeau wanted to do and he slowly gave Lewis more snaps in only nickel packages. Lewis needed easing in because he needed to slowly gain back his confidence. The talent has always been there with him. Remember those training camp stories that we heard about him being the only cornerback that could cover childhood friend Mike Wallace?
Certainly some of the credit goes to new defensive back coach Carnell Lake as well. Both Lewis and Allen are classic young kids he has taken under his wing. Lake was busting with joy after they drafted Allen because he was so raw and didn\’t have many bad habits. With Lewis it seems he was able to break him down and start over. Curtis Brown it appears might take some time, but if everyone stays healthy, they have plenty of time to round him into shape. I documented a while back how quick Lake turned around the UCLA secondary in his one season there. He is good with these young kids and we are seeing that in action now.
In closing, get used to this new man coverage as you will see plenty of it going forward. Teams will no longer be able to exploit the defense by merely spreading them out and hitting the soft area of the zones. They will have to beat the Steelers defense deep or throw darts into tiny holes moving forward.
They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. There is one thing LeBeau is not and that is insane. He was just forced to do the same thing because of personnel shortfalls and lack of time. Now that he appears to have what he needs, the only insane ones will be opposing quarterbacks. Long Live LeBeau!!!