Last season, it was no secret the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense was the difference between AFC Championship and Super Bowl.
Whether it was the young secondary, injury filled defensive line and linebacking core, or the continued adjustment by Keith Butler as defensive coordinator, Pittsburgh’s defense was nothing to be proud of in 2016.
This season, Butler and the rest of the defensive coaching staff have made it clear that the philosophy is different. Instead of playing simple defenses and keeping the workload of their young secondary down, the Steelers will be flexible.
By flexible, Butler means a variety of rush packages, coverage schemes, and movement on the defense. Instead of letting the offense know exactly what they’re doing on every play, the Steelers are looking to make offense guess on each and every down.
For starters, Butler needs to blitz everyone. He has Pittsburgh’s all-time leading sacker in James Harrison, a new found Bud Dupree and rookie T.J. Watt. If Cameron Heyward can come back strong from injury, there’s no excuse for not having at least one body in the backfield on every play.
The bigger concern needs to be the secondary. Artie Burns and Sean Davis are quickly becoming bright young stars. Add the additions to Cameron Sutton and Sequez Golson, the continued firepower of Mike Mitchell, and Ross Cockrell returning to the group, and you have a complete set of secondary players.
Now, instead of running zone on each and every play, let these guys go out and make plays on their own. By allowing them to play man, Burns is going to find a lot more balls, and Davis and Mitchell will make more jaw clenching plays than you can count.
Sutton and Golson may be two “rookies,” but that doesn’t mean they can’t drop back and cover someone man to man. In fact, with Golson’s quickness, his best asset to competing with someone one-on-one in the middle of the field.
Even secondary coach, Carnell Lake, knows that with Burns playing man this season, he’ll be a force most offenses won’t want to mess with.
“We’re putting a big emphasis on that just to help us be more diverse as a defense,” Lake told Dale Lolley of the Observer-Reporter. “We think we’ve got some guys that can do it. Highlighting one guy, Artie Burns is really progressing well in that area. He’s being really physical. He’s challenging Antonio Brown, arguably one of the best receivers in the league, every day. That’s just going to make him better. The more competent he is covering somebody like AB, he should be able to transfer that to our competitors when we get ready to start the season.”
Allowing these guys to match up with someone in 2017 is going to be the difference between a mediocre defense and a strong one. This secondary can cover almost anyone man-to-man, which will allow their pass rush to find the quarterback more.
Butler needs to allow these guys to go play football. They’re a talented group of players, and if utilized correctly, they’ll turn a lot of heads this season.
The entire defense is ready to make noise in 2017. Now, it’s time for the coaches to let them.