Pittsburgh’s offseason blueprint is no secret: build to beat Brady.
Tom Brady and his Patriots defeated Pittsburgh twice last season, including in the AFC Championship game. In that game, a 36-17 win for New England, Brady abused Pittsburgh’s base-but-not-actually-their-base Cover 2 defense, completing 76 percent of his passes and throwing for 384 yards and three touchdowns. New England won the Super Bowl, and then spent the majority of the offseason unloading and restocking talent, just as Bill Belichick is wont to do. At worst, New England is no worse than they were six months ago, which indicates that the road to Super Bowl LII will probably run through Foxborough.
The Steelers, as the near-consensus second-best team in the AFC, are once again New England’s primary challenger. Keith Butler is rightfully concerned about the Patriots’ offense, which has led him to adopt a candidly straightforward, but refreshingly conventional defensive strategy: pressure Brady until he starts spewing profanities at his offensive line (which, as a brief aside, seems kind of like something Brady would do, anyway).
“If we would have gotten some pressure on him,” Butler said in regards to Pittsburgh’s loss in the AFC title game (per ESPN), “we get him to cuss out his dadgum offensive linemen out, hey man, it’s a beautiful world for us.”
This philosophy will very likely be well-received by Pittsburgh’s defense, including cornerback Artie Burns, who recently voiced his concerns about running zone schemes.
“We want to be a team to play man, get pressure on the quarterback and attack coverage downfield,” Burns said.
Increasing the number of man coverage looks and amplifying the pass rush is usually a solid formula for containing top-tier quarterbacks, but Brady is not like most top-tier quarterbacks. Last season, Brady had a 122.3 passer rating against the blitz. Five seasons ago, his passer rating against the blitz was 135.6. Two seasons ago, Pro Football Focus (meh, I know, I know) gave Brady the highest grade against the blitz in the NFL. As these notably disquieting statistics demonstrate, Brady is able to tear virtually any defensive scheme to shreds, though he is particularly awesome against aggressive fronts.
Now, this shouldn’t discourage Butler or the Steelers, who boast as much defensive speed as any team in the NFL. In an effort to successfully implement Butler’s game plan in 2017, the Steelers drafted another edge rusher and two cornerbacks. This doesn’t necessarily signal a paradigm shift in Pittsburgh’s defense philosophy—the Steelers adopted “Blitzburgh” under former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, after all—but it does suggest that they are looking to be a little less predictable this season.
Of course, Butler famously declared that the Steelers would become a “vanilla” defense when he assumed his current role, but that admission came from a point of necessity rather than choice. Pittsburgh’s defense is very young, yes, but players like Bud Dupree, Sean Davis and Burns have all received ample playing time thus far in their careers. This trial by fire, it seems, has straightened their learning curves to a considerable extent, which could allow Butler to utilize some more exotic schemes this season.
The Brady game notwithstanding, the Steelers defense—the secondary in particular—enjoyed a very strong season in 2016, finishing 12th in the NFL in total yards allowed per game. Butler, as well as the rest of Pittsburgh’s coaching staff, players and supporters, will expect similar growth this season.