Steelers defense plans to man up more in 2017
The Steelers defense needed an adjustment, and coach Mike Tomlin and coordinator Keith Butler knew it before the end of last season.
But after rebuilding with three rookies, it was too late to change, and Tom Brady and the New England Patriots made the Steelers pay for playing too much zone defense in a 36-17 loss in the AFC championship game.
“We knew at the end of last year we needed to develop more than just spot drop (into coverage) and play zone,” Butler said Wednesday after the first of two practices on the second day of minicamp. “We knew that going into the end of the season, but, hey, we felt like that was the best opportunity that we had to try to get to the Super Bowl.
“We did what we felt like we had to do against (the Patriots) with where our defense was at at the time.”
After an offseason of retrospection, the Steelers are planning to mix up their defense with more man-to-man coverage — the kind former cornerback Ike Taylor loved to play on the way to three Super Bowls — with the hope the pass rush will be good enough to allow it.
“It’s going to help on both sides of the ball if we play a little bit more man,” Butler said. “Our guys can get used to it. Ben (Roethlisberger) can get used to looking at it. Hopefully, we’ll get better from it.”
It starts with a four-man pass rush — linemen Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave and a linebacker to be named — and depends on defensive backs with the skills and attitude to match up one-on-one against wide receivers.
“Coverage and pressure go together,” Butler said. “They always do. We’ve got to be able to develop a four-man rush and not just blitz all the time.”
Second-year cornerback Artie Burns said he will play whatever defense Butler calls, but he prefers man-to-man.
“Most definitely, I prefer to play that,” he said. “You get a chance to get your hands on the receivers. You get to slow them down. These guys nowadays are fast.”
The retooling of the Steelers defense starts with the expected — and necessary — improvement of 2016 draft picks Burns, Hargrave and safety Sean Davis, all of whom were starters last season. Davis has been slowed this spring by a shoulder injury. Butler hopes this year’s rookies, especially outside linebacker T.J. Watt and cornerback Cam Sutton, and free-agent additions such as cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and defensive end Tyson Alualu, pick up the system quick enough to help.
“If they do, hopefully, we’ll improve enough to get to that next step,” Butler said.
Right now, in the midst of noncontact drills, Butler isn’t sure about the new players.
“Everybody looks good in shorts,” he said. “The hope is they’re picking it up, and we’ll see what they can do when we get pads on and we start playing NFL ball. You watch them in college, it’s a different level.
“I don’t think you ever know what you got until you get four games into the season. Then, you got an idea.”
Sutton, a third-round draft pick from Tennessee, has shown secondary coach Carnell Lake he might be able to help on the outside — where he is now — or in the slot.
“I think Cam has the intelligence to play any position on the field,” Lake said.
What is clear is the Steelers need to improve a defense that was 16th in the NFL in passing yards allowed (242.6) and tied for ninth in sacks (38). That’s not bad, but Brady threw for 384 yards in the title game, and the Steelers didn’t get the last of their two sacks until they trailed 36-9.
This season, mixing up coverages and getting bolder and more aggressive might be an answer.
“Put somebody on the tight end, put somebody on the slot receiver, put somebody on the outside receiver and, sometimes, we’re just going to drop in zone,” Butler said.
“You have to be able to do all that. If you don’t, they know what you’re doing and they’ll get you.”