Can Steelers Play Man Coverage Better? ‘We’ll See’ Says Keith Butler

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.

About the Author

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

    Its good to know they are well prepared to play man coverage.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    first and foremost i want to win
    BUT i just hope they play man most of game and still get carved up because i want this fanbase to stop talking about it like its some miracle cure. brady carves up man too. pressure is more important than man or zone.

  • PittShawnC

    We need to mix in plenty of press coverage and not spot them that massive cushion.

  • pittfan

    brady does a lot of shifting pre snap to see what defense your in. we need to mask that better and not show the blitzes as early. several times in the ratbirds game the blitzer was revealed well before the snap. cant give tom terrific anything to work with.

  • Smitty 6788

    That’s the key imo along with. Pressure up the middle. No freebie throws with 8-10yd cushions

  • Chris92021

    Absolutely right. We need Heyward, Tuitt, Hargrave, Watt, Harrison, and Dupree to fluster and hit Brady a lot and often. I want Brady to turn around and cry to Corrente on every single play if possible.

  • pittfan

    +1. no free releases. the 1st 5 yards is where they run their crossers.

  • PittShawnC

    Tuitt and Heyward are both $10M dollar men, Sunday would be a great time for them to have a huge impact.
    I really dig that 3-2-6 (?) that was show here on film earlier in the week. We need Hargrave, Tuitt and Heyward as much as the Killer B’s on Sunday

  • Mark

    We should Belichick Cheatriots and take away Gronk with TJ and Sean Davis. TJ is athletic enough to run with him and tall enough to not get dominated by Gronk. Davis behind provides additional coverage.

  • Mark

    Also run the X stunts with Heyward and Tuitt, B Gaps and OLB running into A Gaps. Also hitting B gaps with OLB and DT hitting C gaps as well. We have to confuse the Cheatriots blocking schemes

  • Sam Clonch

    Hoping Cam makes a huge difference.

  • Smitty 6788

    Or a 335 defense that way you keep both your OLB on the field with Vince and don’t sacrifice as much in run D.. Either way the base 3 DL need to see a lot of action On Sunday and going fwd. Play your best players and let them make plays.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    And Vince Williams blitzing, please.

  • Ed Smith

    GREAT point! Brady can carve up anything. It is the pressure in his face that gets him out of his rhythm and creates the opportunities for a bad throw, missed read and a pick (hopefully a “6”!)

  • LucasY59

    I have been using 2011 as a reference on most of my comments this week (it really is the only time the Steelers have beaten shady, so you kinda have to use it as the key to beating him)

    couple of things stick out to me in looking back at that game

    1. they used press man so that Shady couldnt kill them with paper cuts on the short quick throws (forces him to hold the ball just a little longer, which gives the pass rush a little better chance of getting to him) but they also switched the coverages up so that he couldnt see/know the scheme and pick it apart

    2. the Steelers O did what the pats usually do to their opponents (paper cuts) Ben threw a lot of short passes and moved the chains, while also controlling the clock, gotta get a lead early and keep the TOP in favor of the Steelers (which really helps the D since they arent on the field all the time, and limits the pats opportunities to score)

    3. no big plays, Gronk had a pretty good statistical game in 2011, but he didnt have any killer big gains and was held out of the end zone, also have to play mistake free on O as well, cant turn the ball over and give Shady more opportunities to score

    *somewhat related to #2 is win the field position battle as well, if the Steelers have to punt at least pin shady as far back as they can (which also means no big returns)

    obviously this is a big game, and although I wont say they need to play a perfect game (save those for the playoffs…not that its possible) they really need to play mistake free *see #3 (but a few small ones wont completely kill them) and even though I really want a win on Sunday, wins in January are much more important (winning at Heinz should make it so those games are also at home which should make winning those easier, and would give them a TON of confidence heading into the post season)

  • LucasY59

    I think that will be a big part to being successful, but I dont know if it is totally possible to completely take Gronk out of the game, but they do need to limit/not allow any big plays for him

    if Gronk has a big game they need to make it so that he is the only one getting the ball, if the pats are one dimensional then they can be beaten

  • LucasY59

    yep gotta get a lead early and control the clock

  • Edo M

    That was my thought as well. See if Watt can shadow Gronk and then just mix up the defense w. the other receivers. I dont think the notion of covering Gronk by committee will work at all..the secondary gets confused enough as it is. what have the steelers got to lose? lesser teams shred our secondary..in any case, with the pick plays the Pats ALWAYS seem to get away with, it is hard for even an accomplished secondary to be effective against something like that

  • blackandgoldBullion

    That game plan was brilliant. Yet they have never used it again. Strange.

  • PittShawnC

    Such an understatement Lucas. Almost every time we play TB12, they’re up by two scores on us before we do anything.
    For real.
    Except for the win in 2011 (where WE were up 10-0), we’ve faced deficits of 10-0, 14-0, 14-0, 14-0, 10-0 in our last five meetings.
    NE has scored first in every game they’ve won. Pit has scored first in both games they won.

  • Trueish90

    Will Keith Butler be the DC of the Steelers next year? “We’ll see”

  • LucasY59

    I am really hoping they at least try to do something similar

  • rystorm06

    Artie Burns with a year of experience, adding Hilton and Sutton.. I have more faith than last year’s squad with Burns (rookie), Gay, and Cockrell. Would be great if Haden is healthy for this game.

    But honestly I think the most important thing is Heyward and Tuitt have a strong game. If Brady gets a clean pocket the entire game, it doesn’t matter how good the coverage is.

  • Uncle Rico.

    We ‘saw’ the second half of the Bengals game. The answer is yes and very well. Played almost exclusively press man while holding the Bengals to 100 total yards, 3 punts, and a field goal.

  • will

    Did you see this HPK?……….”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 mobile in their coverages, with greater flexibility to play man coverages……..you know, for situations like when they play the Patriots.”
    Imagine that……Pittsburgh Steelers brain trust thinking and planning for the Pats game well before the week of the Pats game.

  • 2winz

    What a dumb comment. Who in the right mind wants their teams defense to get lit up? It’s not guaranteed man coverage will work, but the one time we did, we were able to beat Brady.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    Whatever you say bud.

  • WreckIess

    That’s a big part of the equation that a lot people just aren’t really understanding. Press man, off man, whatever. If the DBs can’t execute, then they just can’t do it. Man coverage isn’t what works it’s good man coverage that works.

  • Rob

    We don’t agree on much, but man coverage is definitely overstated by fans. you need it when the time calls for it, but it has just as many flaws as zone does against QBs like Brady without pressure

  • Shannon Stephenson

    If what we do Sunday works and we get a victory you better believe we cannot use the same approach again in the playoffs against them. They will come up with another way to beat us. I have seen the Pats run almost all game to win games so we cannot just rest on our laurels if we do get this victory.

  • 2winz

    that is what I say, zone has clearly not worked at all and well.. thats insanity.. doing same thing over and over and expecting different results but actually i dont have to say anything, results speak for themselves dont they? oh and the coaches and players know playing man is necessary to beat brady, but what do they know lol

  • Todd Borax

    Haha I love the fact that you claim to have notes.

  • John Pennington

    Like to see Allen on Gronk with his size and height and speed maybe he could be the XFactor to take him away from Brady in the passing game.Have nothing to lose but alot to gain.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    Then I suggest you watch more pats games and study how they carve up man just as well. Its not about man or zone. Its about pressure you dolt.

  • Jim Foles

    Brady will use the same approach on us with the dink and dunk.. he has for 15 years.
    Why can’t we stop it, we know its coming?

  • Kenny lee

    We have to quit being so predictable, l am sure we are the team the patriots have predestined as their no 1 threat and will resort to fire alarm pulling at 3 am etc

  • Kenny lee

    Furthermore the Russian president didn’t keep Kraft’s super bowl ring for no reason, l honestly think Pittsburgh should search for bugs be aware of drones etc, cause Pittsburgh must realize the seemed like the patriots knew our plays last year in the playoffs

  • Kenny lee

    When we played Dallas last season zeak scored on a long screan pass when a referee was right there witnessing a flagrant clipping on that play and refs need fired for such flagrant acts that seem to to undermine the integrity of the leage

  • Kenny lee

    I love pro football and the syeelers

  • 2winz

    yes pressure, and you think youre going to get that by giving gronk and the receivers a free release and 5-10 yard cushions?? thats not going to happen and you know its true which is why youre resorting to name calling. Theres an article about spot dropping up.. I wonder why that is.. dont worry, I wont resort to name calling.. I will just wait. If anybody needs to watch more pats games, it’s you who seems to think theres nothing wrong with playing zone against brady. his stats tell the story about playing zone over and over and over again.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    i know what the case is that why everyone above is agreeing with me yet no one agreed with you. there are plenty of teams that play zone and their are plenty of teams. brady beats both. as for receivers and cushions that has nothing to do with pressure. strong pressure on the qb regardless of man or zone will determine games against brady. i could point out 5 or 6 games this year where teams did man or zone against the pats but it was when they put pressure on brady that the defenses succeeded.

  • 2winz

    idc about other teams and idc that you have friends or backup accounts on here that agree with you. that doesnt make you right. you want this defense to get torched.. the fact that theres people who agree with that is sad. What other teams do has nothing to do with our scheme and our personnel. what works for one team doesnt mean it will work for us. We can agree to disagree. but I can guarantee you if we continue playing the same defense against brady this game, we wont get that pressure youre talking about and we will most likely lose. only way we win is if Bens on his game and we come out the positive end of a shootout. I never said man coverage will solve the brady problem, but its better than doing the same old bs and expecting different results.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    right. im using backup accounts and friends.
    first off i dont have time for backup accounts. i say what i want when i want.
    secondly i am one of the most hit or miss divisive people on this site. some love me some hate me. i am still going to be me.
    third this defense will get torched. the point i was making is that at least it will show people that man isnt a miracule.

    im done arguing with you. ive said all that needs to be said.

  • 2winz

    Of course you’re done, you said you HOPE this defense gets totched, thats different than saying youre expecting it to get torched and hope it teaches fans that man coverage is not everything. for some reason people agree with you in hoping it gets torched. go figure, i guess they must be pats fans or something who knows. That said I understand your argument, I dont disagree with you that man coverage doesnt mean they will beat patriots or that they wont get torched, but its better than doing what we all know never works. If you disagree, thats all good, theres nothing to back you up though in terms of stats.. we never get pressure with zone coverage. Now you can leave 😉

  • dany

    Crazy Eyes sacking Brady would make my day, win or lose