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Steelers defensive shift to zone coverage not something to be overlooked

As the Steelers prepare for the 2015 NFL preseason, they are also preparing to deploy a new defensive system with zone coverage in the defensive secondary. This change isn't something which should be overlooked.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are undergoing several adjustments for the 2015 season, and one of those is the departure of long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, and the promotion of former linebackers coach Keith Butler to the one with the reigns of the Steelers' defense.

No one knows all of the details of what Butler plans on changing with the the new system he is going to put into place in 2015, but one defensive aspect which is known is the team's switch to zone coverage in the defensive secondary. Such a defensive philosophy hasn't been deployed primarily since Chuck Noll coached the Steelers. It was the Bill Cowher era with defensive coordinators Dom Capers and the legendary LeBeau who abandoned the zone concepts for different, and more complex, man-to-man concepts.

However, an underlying theme to Butler's defensive philosophy seems to be one which many could live by: Simpler is better.

For years fans have moaned and groaned about the inability for rookies to grasp the complex defense under LeBeau. Butler seems to be attempting to change this with subtle changes to the playbook and the team's overall approach to defense. However, the switch from man coverage to zone coverage is not something which should be overlooked, or taken lightly.

"Cover 2 (zone) gives them the opportunity to play aggressively without taxing them physically," Secondary coach Carnell Lake told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Some might think playing a man coverage scheme might be easier, but in LeBeau's system they played a unique man-zone system which required players to pick up a man, and pass him off to another player. Something which takes a lot of time to get accustomed to and to ensure it works correctly.

"You may be passing your guy to another guy and picking up someone else and that's where it starts to get tricky — when do I do that, how do I do that, understanding the circumstances I do that. There's a lot of things involved that goes with that."

You get a glimpse why some rookies, even players like Troy Polamalu, struggled with these concepts early in their careers. Nonetheless, the switch to zone coverage could help a struggling secondary by allowing the players to keep their eyes on the ball, and hopefully make more plays.

"In zone, you're throwing a web out there and saying this is field we're covering," Lake said. "We want to make sure if they throw the ball here, that offensive player gets caught in the web. In order to do that, you've got to coordinate across the field, not only with the secondary, but also the linebackers or underneath coverage players. Based on how you play your zone will depend how those strengths play out."

The switch to zone will be something to keep an eye on throughout the team's 5 preseason games starting Sunday. In the 2014 preseason, LeBeau attempted deploying a unique package with only 2 defensive linemen and multiple linebackers and safeties in a variety of positions. After being gashed by the Philadelphia Eagles, the plan was scrapped and it was back to the drawing board.

The Steelers struggled against the pass in 2014, and everyone knows that. The switch to zone coverage certainly could benefit a team who could seemingly get by with a mediocre defense if their offense is a potent as many believe it can be. The switch from man to zone is one which could be a deal breaker for the Steelers, and certainly one to keep an eye on this preseason.