Any fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers remembers the 2016 AFC Championship game like it was yesterday. Watching the New England Patriots throttle the black-and-gold at Gillette Stadium has never left the fan base’s craniums.
In the following days, fans wanted the team to stop playing their usual zone coverage schemes, and move to more man coverage schemes. Believing this would be the cure-all for slowing down Tom Brady and company.
While the Week 15 game vs. the Patriots at Heinz Field lingered over the team, and fans, the majority of the season, when the time finally faced the Patriots Keith Butler gave fans just what they wanted — more man coverage.
Check out the statistics of the Steelers pure man coverage snaps throughout the season:
Steelers pure man coverage... Wks 1-14: 12% of coverage snaps Wk 15 vs Patriots: 65% of coverage snaps.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) December 19, 2017
Many wondered if Butler kept this style of defense in his back pocket just for the Patriots, and this certainly could have been the case, but the cat is now out of the bag, and you have to wonder how successful was the team’s man-coverage approach to the New England game.
For the most part, Brady struggled against the defense for 3.5 quarters of play, but when the game was on the line, and the defense needed just one stop, Rob Gronkowski broke loose, abusing Sean Davis in the process, and helping the Patriots take the lead, and eventually the victory.
Anyone who watched the game would certainly see how man coverage is what works best against Brady and company, but it is so much more than just the secondary coverage scheme. Pittsburgh was able to pressure Brady with Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, forcing Brady off his spot and attempting some very uncomfortable throws in traffic. Without this pressure, Brady would have had the time to remain patient in the pocket, allowing his targets to win their one-on-one matchup.
The man-coverage schemes were not perfect, but when a team doesn’t truly run them until a marquee matchup, there will be growing pains. Even at the NFL level, being comfortable with something foreign isn’t as simple as flipping a switch.
Where do the Steelers go from here, defensively? They would be wise to strategically continue to use their man coverage schemes, with their zone schemes, to help perfect them for the postseason, and a potential rematch with New England.