The Pittsburgh Steelers' defense gave up several big plays and long drives against the Buffalo Bills in the third week of the 2015 NFL preseason. With the team having a new defensive coordinator in Keith Butler after the long tenure of Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau, Butler's cover 2 scheme has received much criticism this preseason as the Steelers' defense has not looked great.
Let's take a look at three specific plays from Sunday:
Here you can see the problems on the first long touchdown pass surrendered by the Steelers against the Bills.
The front seven failed to bring any pressure upon Manuel and make his job harder to read the defense;
Shamarko Thomas was out of position on Clay's seam allowing for an easy catch and score.
Clay had a good day against the Steelers the last time he played them in 2013 with the Miami Dolphins, but this was less about his playmaking ability and more about a break down in the defense. Thomas realizes he is out of position when he tries to break back to the inside and slips getting to Clay. In cover 2, his responsibility is to play deep. With the receiver on his side being well covered by Cortez Allen in the flat, he needs to read that Clay is the man he needs to cover. This contributes to a touchdown more than just a bad play drawn up by Butler.
Here we don't get a great look at the coverage, but it's good enough when you get a solid pass rush like this.
Notice the twist from Moats and McLendon and how Moats explodes through two blockers to force Cassel to be on the move. This kind of pressure prevents a quarterback from making the read the Manuel was able to make on the last play we highlighted.
Something that was not done enough last season was for pass rushers to keep their outside shoulder/hand free while engaged with their blocker. Heyward does this perfectly which allows for him to get a hand on Cassel. Moats shows great effort in fighting off from being held on the play and helping Heyward get a sack on 3rd down and force a punt. Moats has made a strong push to see more time in 2015.
Here you can see that the defense fails to create any pressure on Manuel, again. Giving him all the time in the world to make an easy throw, but instead, Manuel decides to throw it deep to a wide receiver streaking down the sideline. This is where cover 2 SHOULD come into play and make for a turnover. But the problem here is again, execution.
Notice how Kevin Fogg passes his receiver along to his safety, Alden Darby, just how cover 2 is designed. If Darby reads this correctly, he puts himself in a better position to make a play on the ball and intercept Manuel's pass to force a turnover.
While some may think that Butler may design his plays to rely too much on his safeties, these are not plays that would only be made by the exceptional 2010 version of Troy Polamalu. Will Allen has made similar interceptions in his career with Pittsburgh (look back to his interception of Matt Stafford over Calvin Johnson in 2013) and Allen is not known for his athleticism but his positioning and football IQ to make plays on the field.
The cover 2 is not something which needs to be thrown away and for the team to try something else, the defense needs to keep working on it. With more pressure and better safety play, the Steelers' defense will not be all that bad in 2015. But part of seeing better safety play may actually rely on Mike Mitchell being healthy for him and Thomas to gel as on-field teammates more and build the sort of relationship which Polamalu and Ryan Clark had; not necessarily that Clark could just let Polamalu do what he wanted, but at least the basis that the two can rely on each other to play within the scheme and know where each other are on a specific play.