Least Shocking Statistic of the Year: the Steelers played zone coverage somewhere north of one-hundred forty-three percent of plays in 2015. Or something like that. It’s a big number, that much I know for sure.
You could argue they just didn’t have the personnel to do it. And you’d hear crickets if you made that argument, because you’d be right.
In his heyday, cornerback Ike Taylor was one of the best man-coverage defenders in the game. If Darrelle Revis is an island, Taylor was a throw pillow — as in, he was used to smother people. Because of an utter inability to pull in easy interceptions, he never got the league-wide recognition of other cover corners, but he kept some of the best receiver in football completely out of the box score on a weekly basis.
But Antwon Blake? William Gay? They don’t exactly inspire confidence in one-on-one coverage. Gay can do it well enough, but he’s exceptional in zone. Brandon Boykin was purely a zone defender. Ross Cockrell was sufficient at both, but didn’t excel at either.
They didn’t even have safeties who could man up to a receiver. Robert Golden, who could be the starting strong safety to open the season, actually has the best cover skills among the safeties who have actually cashed a game check, but even he shouldn’t be left alone on a consistent basis. Last year’s starter at the position, Will Allen, was far too slow to man-cover a receiver.
That’s where the new guys come in.
Rookie corner Artie Burns is purely a cover corner. We won’t rehash his skills, because we did that about seventy times since he was drafted at the end of April. Second-round pick Sean Davis, who should push Golden for the starting strong safety spot, has experience playing man coverage as a corner. Senquez Golson played mostly zone, but has the agility, acceleration and speed to play man coverage if needed.
The funny thing is, Cockrell may be the team’s best-kept secret in man coverage. Everyone knows Burns will mostly be manning up to a receiver when he is on the field. But, because the team used so little man coverage in 2015, Cockrell’s abilities weren’t really showcased. But if you go back and look at his college tape, his ability to stick with receivers really stands out. In fact, against Florida State in 2013, he did a commendable job on Kelvin Benjamin, the 2014 first-round pick for the Carolina Panthers. It was none other than Jameis Winston, the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, throwing those passes. That was a potent combination, and Cockrell spent a good bit of that game keeping those two from connecting.
After watching that game tape, I am confident in saying Cockrell’s performance as a man corner in 2015 — which comes in slightly above a “meh” rating" — was due more to the small sample size than anything else. He has the skills.
Don’t expect an earth-moving change in 2016, of course. The fact that the Steelers primarily zone coverage isn’t likely to change dramatically. But, with guys like Burns and Cockrell available, expect to see a good bit more man coverage in 2016, even if they will still likely be well below the league average.
It’s a baby step in the right direction.