The Pittsburgh Steelers spent a lot of time in the offseason talking about the need to improve their ability to execute out of man coverage, but that has not necessarily translated into actually using man coverage with greater frequency than they ordinarily would have under different circumstances.
Nor does that mean that they haven’t been working on it. Jeremy Fowler writes for ESPN that the team practices man coverages on a weekly basis, while Artie Burns told him that the defense has not used the entire defensive playbook as of yet.
While you may have read reports about the Steelers running the fewest instances of man coverage league-wide, that could be misleading, because that report referenced exclusively instances of pure man coverage across the board, when the truth is that the team runs a lot of modified coverages that mix man and zone in the same look.
Burns, for example, told Fowler that he would estimate he has played in man roughly 35 percent of the time so far this season, while I recall earlier this season that Joe Haden told Aditi Kinkhabwala a few weeks ago that he felt he was running it closer to 50 percent of the time.
It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the rough guesses of either cornerback were an exaggeration of the actual number, but the point is that, while they might not have used pure man coverage with a significant increase in frequency, they have incorporated elements of it more into their overall blend.
But one wonders if they have run it enough to prepare themselves for the instances in which they will need it most, such as against the New England Patriots, which even the Steelers talk about. “The quarterback’s got to be patting the ball”, Burns, who was the biggest proponent of using more man coverage in the summer, told Fowler. “Then we can mix in some zone too; that’s when the picks come”.
In truth, the last time the Steelers beat the Patriots in 2011 was an instance in which they sprung a man coverage approach on them, after not having done so robustly during the season prior to that point. There was Ike Taylor, of course, who frequently was left to his own devices, but the rest of the defense was typically in pure zone.
“Whenever we need it, we will go” to man coverage, Burns told Fowler. “We’re playing teams that want to put the ball down the field. We’ve been training for this, the chance to play good receivers and quarterbacks. We’ve got a little stretch where we’re going to keep seeing teams that throw the ball. We’ve got to start honing on our technique”.