The Steelers defense currently ranks second in the NFL against the pass. That’s something that not many could comprehend prior to the 2016 NFL Draft. That was when the process for rebuilding a secondary that had lost Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, and Ryan Clark finally got serious.
Artie Burns came in the first round. Finally a corner that specialized in man to man coverage at Miami. Then came Sean Davis, a physical hard nosed safety from Maryland who was athletic enough to play corner in college too.
With Burns joining Davis as a starter in the secondary half way thru last season the unit began to turn the corner. The Steelers reeled off 7 straight wins to close out the regular season before finally losing to Tom Brady and New England in the AFC Championship game.
Brady shredded the Steelers zone scheme. When the Steelers tried to man up they just weren’t able to do it effective enough. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler admitted after the game that they weren’t able to play man because they weren’t comfortable putting their players in that position. Namely starting corner Ross Cockrell.
Insert Joe Haden. Haden came over days before the Steelers opened the season in Cleveland after being released by the Browns. Haden’s specialty? Man coverage. Cockrell was jettisoned to the Giants.
The Browns played more man coverage than any team in the NFL over Hadens days in Cleveland, but the Browns front office insisted that Haden had lost a step and wasn’t good enough for the hefty price tag that they were paying him.
So far they’ve been wrong.
He’s a stabilizing factor,” Coach Carnell Lake said of Haden. “For a while there, teams weren’t throwing his way. Just the fact that he can take away a side is crucial. You don’t worry about it with Joe on that side.”
Though the Steelers have been preparing for the day that they will need to deploy their new improved coverage schemes it hasn’t happened yet.
“As we develop as a secondary and teams start to hone in on what we’re doing, we’re going to have to evolve too,” Lake said. “I think man-to-man will be a part of that.”
“Whenever we need it, we will go to [man],” Burns said with undoubtedly New England in mind. “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.”
The test won’t come until Brady and company march into Heinz Field on Dec. 17, as the Steelers will he aided by several injuries across the league. Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, and what would’ve been a huge showdown on Christmas with Deshaun Watson are now games that the Steelers should win by a landslide.
“I wanted to play against them,” Burns said.
The key against Brady will always be getting pressure on him.
“Tight coverage, close coverage, will help the [pressure] get there,” Burns said. “The quarterback’s got to be back there patting the ball. Then we can mix in some zone too; that’s when the picks come.”
Heinz Field will surely be rocking when the Patriots come to town.