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Steelers defense sticking with zone coverage — for now

Joe Rutter
| Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, 7:57 p.m.
Steelers cornerback Joe Haden brings down the Bengals' Brandon LaFell during the first quarter Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers cornerback Joe Haden brings down the Bengals' Brandon LaFell during the first quarter Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Steelers cornerback Artie Burns (25) plays against the Cleveland Browns during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Steelers cornerback Artie Burns (25) plays against the Cleveland Browns during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)

Remember all of the talk about the Steelers needing to play more man-to-man coverage if they wanted to get to the Super Bowl?

How the Steelers had to change strategies after Tom Brady picked apart their zone-based scheme for 384 yards and three touchdowns in the AFC championship game in January?

It hasn't happened yet midway through the season, and armed with an AFC-best 6-2 record as evidence, defensive coordinator Keith Butler isn't in a rush to change anything.

“I'm not going to worry about it,” Butler said Thursday. “The only thing that matters is the amount of points they score and whether we win or lose. Changing to man or changing zones, we're going to do what we feel like it takes to win and get in the tournament and try to win the tournament.

“Whether it's by zone, whether it's by man, we'll do whatever we have to do.”

What the Steelers have done through the first half of the season is play more zone coverage than last season, if that is possible. In 2016, the Steelers played zone on 75 percent of their defensive snaps, more than any team aside from the Carolina Panthers (80 percent).

According to Pro Football Focus rankings, the Steelers this season deployed zone coverage on 89 percent of their defensive snaps through the first six weeks, the website's most recent computation. No team had played more zone.

“Whatever it calls for us to win the game, that's what we are going to use,” second-year corner Artie Burns said.

Although the Steelers have played man-to-man coverage on only about one of every 10 defensive plays, that doesn't mean they are on the verge of abandoning it. It is waiting in storage for the right opportunities.

“We rolodex stuff,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “If we feel like we need to play man in more situations, we have the capability to do it. We can play different zones. For us, it's being comfortable in all different kinds of coverage.

“That's the good thing about our defense is you never really know what we are going to be in.”

Coach Mike Tomlin never guaranteed the Steelers would play more man coverage this season. When he addressed the issue in March at the NFL owners meetings, he merely said the Steelers needed to play man-to-man more “effectively.”

The Steelers then set about finding more effective pieces for their secondary. Haden, a former Pro Bowl player, was signed as a free agent 10 days before the season started, prompting the trade of 2016 starting corner Ross Cockrell. First-year player Mike Hilton has served as the nickel corner, bumping veteran William Gay to the lesser-used dime corner spot.

Despite allowing 423 yards passing to Detroit's Matthew Stafford on Oct. 29, the Steelers have the NFL's second-ranked pass defense. They also have given up the second-fewest points (16.4) in the NFL. Stafford, for all of his yardage, couldn't get the Lions into the end zone.

The Steelers threw a fire-zone coverage — a man/zone hybrid — at Stafford, who routinely found holes between the safeties and cornerbacks while moving the ball between the 20s.

“Not everybody has that arm. Not everybody can make those throws,” Haden said. “He's a really good quarterback.”

One the Steelers likely won't see again until Dec. 17, when Brady and the Patriots visit Heinz Field. Because of injuries, the Steelers won't see Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers or Deshaun Watson in the second half.

Until Brady arrives, the place where the Steelers might play the most man-to-man coverage won't be in a stadium, but rather the practice field at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

“I'm comfortable with it, I really am,” defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said. “We'll continue to evolve in that area. The thing about it is we have a full playbook at our disposal now. It helps to have Joe, someone who has man-to-man coverage ability. Really, that's what it's all about.

“If you have guys that can cover man-to-man, you feel more comfortable about playing man-to-man.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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