2017 South Side Questions: Will Pass Coverage Doom The Season?

The journey toward the Super Bowl is now well under way with the Pittsburgh Steelers back practicing at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, still informally referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility. With the regular season standing in their way on the path to a Lombardi, there will be questions for them to answer along the way.

We have asked and answered a lot of questions during the preseason and through training camp, but much of the answer-seeking ends in the regular season, and teams simply have to make do with what they have available to them. Still, there will always be questions for us.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond as they develop, looking for the answers as we evaluate the makeup of the Steelers on their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.

Question: Is the suddenly vulnerable pass coverage going to be the thing that stops the Steelers from winning the Super Bowl?

Right now, the Steelers have as good a chance as any team in the league to win the Super Bowl. They are in the driver’s seat to host a pair of playoff games leading to the game, though they will likely have their hands full with whatever team from the NFC reaches the game—assuming they make it there as well.

And after the last few games, one has to wonder if the deep passing defense is suddenly going to be the thing that stops this Steelers team from getting there. Sure, not having Joe Haden out there isn’t helping things, but it clearly goes beyond Coty Sensabaugh. Artie Burns has been beaten a few times as well, and blown coverages and certain schemes have been exploited for long touchdowns as well.

The Steelers have gone from being the only team in the first five games to not allow a reception of 40 or more yards to now being tied for the fifth-most in the league, allowing nine receptions of 40 or more yards—the vast majority on deep throws—in the last six weeks. It wasn’t so long ago that they had only allowed five touchdown passes. It’s now up to 12 just since the bye week.

Getting Haden back will help. Getting Mike Mitchell healthier will help. But there are obviously issues beyond that. During the first five weeks, even, they got lucky a handful of times. They have been playing with fire, and have only suffered minor burns so far, since they’re still winning, but how long will that last?

Last night’s defense certainly looked like one that would be infinitely exploitable by a quarterback of the caliber of Tom Brady. The Steelers have two weeks to get their house in order before that all-important showdown, which has a very high chance of deciding home-field advantage in the playoffs.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • will

    You are so right Matt. The secondary was exposed several games back. And getting Mitchell healthy is not part of the solution. He is average at coverage at best. Burns is regressing and he cannot tackle very well at all. If he makes one you would think he had just won the Lottery by his “celebration”. But I digress……. they need more pressure …….they need Debo……Bud is useless getting to the QB. Did I say they need more pressure?

  • Phil Brenneman II

    I know one thing Matthew, Steelers should give strong consideration to the starting 2 being Haden and Sensabaugh once Joe is back. Burns just flat out isn’t cutting it right now. Like you said, Coty got beat too but he still feels more disciplined play to play and I remember one play specifically tonight where Burns had a very poor tackling effort that really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t know if it was true lack of effort or he just knew he was beat before it started and just threw his hands out to try and grab the guy and hope for the best.

  • CP72

    Seriously it’s time to talk about Artie Burns. He seems to like to free lance That would be ok if he was making the occasional play, but Artie has zero interceptions. It’s not like he’s getting beat trying to help out in the run game either.

    Artie carries himself like he’s one of the best shutdown corners…hes not. Artie is the weakest link in the chain. He needs to get to where he’s suppose to be and quit hurting this defense.

  • Steve Johnson

    Th

  • ryan72384

    Yes if Haden doesn’t return or isn’t himself when he comes back we are going to get lit up either in the AFC playoffs or Super Bowl if we make it. Wentz or Brees would shred this defense. The deep safety play is awful and we have a barely number 2 and 3 corners as starters right now on the outside.

  • CP72

    Sean Davis spends a lot of time at the line of scrimmage. That leaves a good bit of ground for Mitchell to cover. When you have corners that aren’t where there suppose to be you could have Ed Reed on the back end and it wouldn’t matter.

    Artie Burns needs to quit guessing. He’s obviously not very good at it.

  • Bradys_Dad

    I too was chomping at the bit watching Burns attempt to tackle. Aside from one solid tackle for a loss on a quick out he was pathetic in tackling. I hate saying this because this is a very likeable guy but it is what is. I also agree about Bud. Another great guy who just isn’t getting pressure in to the backfield. Sure he’s that blind squirrel who finds a nut every once in a while but there’s absolutely no consistency of pressure on that side at all. It would be interesting to see a Deebo/TJ tandem on the outside for sure. I’d also question whether Moates would bring more power off that edge?

  • Randy

    Yes i agree. We will see how the secondary performs against Patriots

  • Bradys_Dad

    Or on December 17th. Brady has to be licking his chops looking at game films of Burns.My stomach is queasy.

  • Bradys_Dad

    Very well stated.

  • Surrealist

    Here we are again talking about a subpar secondary led by a guy who was a db coach. I dont think this is ever going to be a good coverage team with Tomlin at the helm. Burns needs to sit out a game to get his focus straight, or at least keep him from playing zone at all because he will continue to get smoked with lack of attention and mistakes and his effort on run defense leaves much to be desired. Mitchell being replaced in the draft cant come soon enough, getting tired of watching him not even get a hand on the guy when thats his job.

  • hdogg48

    Last year the Steelers defense got better and better as the
    season went on until they s hit the bed in the AFC
    Championship Game.

    This year they started out as bend but don’t break and
    worked their way into a top 5 defense…until the bye
    then they got a bad case of “giving up the big play it is.”

    Fix it Butler and Lake….lots of draft and free agent capital
    has been spent and maybe squandered.

    Artie needs a spanky butt. With his speed and athleticism
    and now experience there is no excuse for him to get
    toasted as bad as he has since Haden went down.

    I can’t think of ANY other CB in the league that has blown
    as many coverages as he has. Even Cockrell still gets
    beat a lot for the Giants, but unlike 25 (Burns) at least he
    is 3 or 4 yards near the ball….Artie is totally out of
    the picture.

    This is a cerebral game as well as physical. He doesn’t need
    to be an All Pro…just get himself in the POSITION to make
    the play’s he’s supposed to make.

    That’s what Ben did after the bye…he started making the throws
    he’s supposed to make.

  • Conserv_58

    To answer the thread question, Yes. It’s a different season yet we see the same darn issues with the secondary. They stink! Other than Joe Haden, they are the worst tackling secondary in the league. There has been zero progressional in Artie’s play. He’s Charred Scott redux. He should never be allowing himself to be out of the play or where he needs to be. It’s embarrassing to see the TV camera’s show a totally vacated area where Burns was supposed to be. It should embarrass the heck outta Carnell Lake to see how out of position Artie gets himself.

    IMO, without Joe Haden the Bengals are going to torch Artie and Sensabaugh, especially Sensabaugh.

  • Conserv_58

    I was angry watching Artie laughing it up on the sideline right after getting his butt torched by Cobb. I’m thinking, “What the he!! are you laughing at?! You just embarrassed the crap out of yourself and the team and you’red laughing?!

    Other than Joe Haden, this secondary continues to be a laughing stock.

  • capehouse

    Artie screwed up the coverage, Shazier got too cute, and Coty got whooped. 3 plays I think you can chalk up to flukey scores, although Coty just got straight up beat by his man. The score that ticked me off the most had nothing to do with the deep passing game. It was the 12 play 77 yard drive taking up almost 7 mins of the clock at the end of the 4th qtr to tie the game with a backup QB. Three short passes and the Packers were already at the Steelers 27 yard line. Just ridiculous. I think the double Renegade jinxed them.

  • Big Joe

    IF they don’t play better assignment-sound football, it’s gonna catch up to them for sure.

  • Woodsworld

    Yes, Burns is not playing well, but neither is the front seven. This team is a little soft, and the 2 DL scheme is what they are running on. I’m not impressed by Bud Dupree’s pass rush, or his progress as a RD one draft choice. Though I like TJ Watt’s effort, he isn/t even close to being able to set the edge like James Harrison. Part of the problem with the secondary is how mach time they must dedicate to stopping the run. I can’t remember seeing this many running plays being stopped by players in the secondary.

  • PittShawnC

    I really wonder what happened on that Cobb TD. Not saying it was or wasn’t Burns fault, but Davis, Shazier and Williams were all within a yd or two of GB’s TE in the middle of the field.

    Was the original playcall really to have Burns responsible for both WR’s in that 1/3rd? And have 3 dudes all near their TE?

  • Big Joe

    Poor assignment football by players and bad defensive calls at times by Butler. The middle zone was atrocious at times and the free releases on the WRs and TEs with 5-8 yd buffers were just dumbfounding me.

  • AndyR34

    Chick brings more off the edge than Bud!

  • AndyR34

    I don’t mind Artie’s celebrations of tackles. He makes so few, he should celebrate the ones he does make.

  • AndyR34

    No, Matt…LACK of pass coverage will doom the season!

  • John Westbrook

    Artie Burns is another Shamarko Thomas Braindead

  • Intense Camel

    It was cover 3. Artie had that deep third of the field but instead followed the receiver on the post route into the middle of the field (into Mitchell’s zone) instead of sticking with his. It was all on Artie. No question.

  • Rich Stafford

    Burns is horrible. He doesn’t understand basic coverage concepts. Not knowing what coverage your in or not understanding is inexcusable. I would rather see guys getting beat physically. Stop all the fake this and that switching to one coverage or another at the snap.

  • Rich Stafford

    Burns is no fluke. There is enough on tape already proving he doesn’t know cover 2 from man to man.

  • PittShawnC

    Cool, thank you Camel.

    So what do you make of Davis’ responsibility on the play?
    I also wonder about Mitchell getting over to get the WR Burns is covering is Burns stayed over near Cobb.

    Take a look at the pic with this article if you can zoom in a bit on your phone.

  • capehouse

    Coty is worse.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    I hate talking about this on ‘Steelers Win’ Monday, because it’s great to have one day to enjoy a win before the complaining starts.

    Artie Burns needs to be benched. I just don’t know how the Steelers accomplish that from a personnel standpoint. And I’m sorry, Steelers Nation. I know he’s a former #1 pick, but that doesn’t change that he’s a liability from a run and pass standpoint and is hurting the team much more than he’s helping.

    Now Sensabaugh’s given up two long TDs as well. I’d have to see more from this game, but that’s concerning as well.

    Add some of the worst tackling in the league and it’s definitely a problem. I think we’re back to the offense having to score, but not just 30. It’s gonna take more than that to advance all the way.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Gotta think giving Deebo some burn at Dupree’s spot makes a lot of sense right now. Dupree hasn’t shown he can get to the QB.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Yeah that was a tough one. First he has the penalty that negates the sack and keeps the defense on the field, then gives up the long ball. Geezus..

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Ha, the only thing I disagreed with was the last two words – but only because Burns looks so much worse. I tried to spotlight Sensa a few times. Besides the long ball, he didnt look bad. Didn’t look good, but what did you see?

  • foremania

    I told someone the same thing during the game last night. At this point, it has to be on the table. Like you said: both guys have been burned, but some of Artie’s mental lapses are egregious.

  • cencalsteeler

    Yes. Yes it will, unfortunately. I’ve been shouting this from the rooftops all season. I guarantee you Brandin Cooks will be Bradys go to guy on the crossing route and they will run at Watt. When in zone, Edelman will get his slants and Gronk will get his share of “explosive plays” in between backer and safety coverage. We have a slight hope in Haden, but not much has changed from last season, so why would we expect different results.

  • Intense Camel

    Not sure, haven’t really dissected any other part of the play, but from just one replay it was clear that Artie completely blew his assignment.

  • pittfan

    That pissed me off too. He looked like a clown.

  • Charles Haines

    Agree, make Burns play man all the time, take thinking out of the equation.

  • pittfan

    It would be the easy answer to say YES, especially after last night. But if the theory is we play to the level of our opponents then a playoff caliber opponent will get a playoff caliber performance. Sure the secondary looked sucky last night but I’m holding out hope we step up our game at the back end and are competitive no matter who we face. The Team Without Flaws included.

  • SilverSteel

    I am starting to not like what I see out of Burns. At first he looked so good, so full of promise. Now he looks cocky and his play is not above the line. Stick to the fundamentals Steelers. Stop getting cute and hit them in the mouth. Burnsie looked allergic to tackling. I saw little effort when guys ran right passed him. That ain’t gonna cut it.

  • SilverSteel

    Lol

  • SilverSteel

    I remember that play. I thought the same. You ain’t tryin!! That was some weak ass tackling.

  • SilverSteel

    Never thought I’d hear that Burns is the weak link, but it’s hard to argue against. His mindset seems to have gone from humble, decent play – to cocky undisciplined apathetic coverage. That’s all head stuff and if we had less diva drama, he would probably have been just fine. Seems like we have been a bad example for the lad.

  • steelereign

    I’m not pointing fingers at Tomlin or Butler, but do you think if Cowher, Parcells, or (I hate to say it) Belichick were the coach, that Burns would go the sideline laughing and carrying on?

    There is, and has been for some time, a serious lack of discipline with the Steelers and the coaches are responsible to fix it.

  • ThatGuy

    Yep and they have everything we can’t cover. Accurate QB, shifty RB, big TE.

  • curtis williams

    Put Artie Burns on the bench put in Bryan Allen. Steeler need to admit that they got it wrong with Burns 1st round pick

  • curtis williams

    He’s.. just not good Should have been drafted in the 3rd or 4th Round

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    You read MY mind!!

  • Darth Blount 47

    Edelman? The guy is on IR, out for the season. Torn ACL. Hasn’t played a single game all year. Have you even been watching football? Lol. It’s 2017, not 2016. 🙂

  • Darth Blount 47

    My upvote comes from the part about tackling. I was furious. Once Haden is back, you play the two guys who were having a good tandem-year, pre-injury. Sensabaugh hasn’t shown enough to think he’s the answer to woes.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    I agree.
    We all have been talking on this and other Steelers sites about how inconsistent the team has been, typically on the O side of the ball.
    This team has the PHYSICAL ability to be devastatingly good (as in the TEN game), but the seeming lack of mental discipline to avoid some pitfalls.
    Consistency and mental toughness, hmmmmmm.
    A large portion of the responsibility for those two shortcomings lies with the coaching staff, as well as the players!!!
    Not a new thing after all, our playing ‘down’ to the competition right?

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Xactly. Undisciplined. See my reply to steelereign above!!!

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Greater discipline leads to greater consistency.
    Burns has the physicality but has not been doing well above the neck the last coupla weeks.

  • Darth Blount 47

    Seeing as how we are GOING TO WIN the Super Bowl, I’d say the answer is: No.

    The Secondary/Pass coverage will NOT “doom the season”.

    However, if I see Artie Burns give one more OLE effort on his tackling responsibilities, I’m going to break something. Not stopping Jordy Nelson short of the line was bad enough. But there was another instance where he clearly just didn’t want to tackle the guy he was one-on-one against. I mean, it was clear as day. You could read it on his body language. I was furious mad. That level of effort is inexcusable.

    Also, side note… again…. NOT playing James Harrison at all is also inexcusable. At this point, he better get like 50 snaps come playoff time or OBVIOUSLY this whole “saving him” thing was nonsense and a shot at the intelligence of Steeler Nation. Which is again, pretty inexcusable for a fanbase that bleeds for this team. Unlike MANY other fanbases around this often stupid league.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Agree with you on Burns – seeing him laughing on the sidelines after a mental failure like the one he made on the TD play was revolting!!!
    Bench him if for no other reason than that!!
    I don’t agree on the ’30 points won’t be enough in the POs’ though – the D has had a couple so so games but overall they have been pretty solid before last night.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    I think we will do exactly that (pick it up in the POs) but the road is much tougher when a team does the ‘play down to the opponent’ thing!!

  • Steve Johnson

    That’s the problem with Tomlin, he doesn’t make any changes. I don’t think Allen is ready, but why not Bench Burns just to send him a message?

  • Steve Johnson

    That’s a huge problem. One of the guys told me about that, I missed it. But that’s the environment that Tomlin has created. The Players don’t view him as an authority figure. And the only time Tomlin looks like he’s ticked off is when the lose a game. These issues are going to doom the Steelers yet again. As long as Tomlin is the Head Coach, there will continue to be a lack of discipline on that team.

  • Steve Johnson

    Even in Man Coverage, he often gets caught looking into the backfield. Something has to be done, the Head Coach continues to play him though.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    I mean.. the big play TDs alone for the past 3 weeks have been league worst.. tackling is league worst.. just seems like once playoffs begin, this offense is going to need to score a TON.

    Let’s not forget that the play before he gave up the long TD, he was penalized and canceled out a sack that caused 4th down. THEN he gives up the TD, and goes to the bench for a giggle-fest.
    What?!

  • Phil Brenneman II

    I don’t disagree, I just think it needs to be in consideration. It can’t just be “Artie is a first round pick so he wins by default”. They were having a pretty solid year but even then we are seeing these signs that Artie just gets lost at times. I think Coty has that vet awareness where he doesn’t get lost but does get burned taking chances.

  • Darth Blount 47

    Yeah, I really wish we’d have taken a more “ready” CB than Sutton in round 3. I get it, he can’t get dinged for the one injury. But if he’s healthy, why isn’t he getting the opportunity? Same thing with Allen. It’s as if we didn’t actually draft any CB’s in this last draft at all. Meanwhile, CB after CB is playing year 1 and making big impacts. Lattimore, Humphrey, Jackson, White, Griffin, Lewis, Douglas, Hairston, Kazee, King, etc… Honestly, almost all the guys around him, basically. It sucks.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Well I think Sutton ran into a bunch of invents that wrote him out of the picture. I think there is a strong likelihood he would have replaced Gay as the starter in the slot at some point in the season but Mike Hilton came in and took the job while Sutton was injured and Hilton is arguably our best DB on the field right now.

    And like you said, you hesitate to pull the plug on guys who have had some success this season (Gay, Burns, and Sensabaugh/Haden) so who does he plug in for? I think at this point the most likely is still Gay but we can’t rule out him getting some snaps for Burns if the play keeps trending the way it has.

  • cencalsteeler

    My bad. It was Danny Amendola I was thinking of.

  • pittfan

    Shows you jus how good Brady is. He can complete passes to people not even in the game

  • pittfan

    Yeah, is a frustrating aspect of this team but this yoear they are winning games they used to blow

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Right but prior to the Pack game, we averaged giving up ~17 pts/game which is pretty damn good in TODAYS NFL!!
    So I am not panicking there.
    The simple truth is that we have a young, uber talented D that almost always does well vs the run, but whose mental errors lead to explosive plays in the pass game.
    That’s not TERRIBLE, but the mental errors will kill us – play a game like that vs NE and we will be eaten alive!!!

  • Steel Realist PAul

    It won’t take NE to do it. Remember this was a team (GB) that had just gotten blown out and shut out, and they almost came into Pittsburgh on a night game and took the game.

    To me, just saying but.. to me über talented includes the ability to tackle. When you factor that in, this may be a team that needs to score a lot to reach the end.