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Explaining how the Steelers desire to run more man-coverage impacts how they blitz

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A major talking point for the Steelers this offseason has been their desire to play more man-to-man coverage on defense. We explain how this can impact their blitzing tendencies as well.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times...

“If the Steelers ever want to beat the Patriots, they need to play more man-to-man coverage on defense.”

Yes, this is something which seemingly won’t go away, and it has gotten to the point where the coaching staff has even started to echo some of these same sentiments as the team prepares for the 2017 regular season.

Playing man-coverage schemes on defense, compared to the zone-coverage the Steelers usually deploy, is certainly a change of pace, and will show a new wrinkle most teams aren’t expecting when they play the Steelers, but it has a ripple effect on the defense as a whole. In fact, it can actually impact how the team decides to blitz the opposing quarterback.

Remember in 2016 when Keith Butler hardly blitzed to start the season? The opening game in Washington saw Kirk Cousins literally throwing the game away, as the team dropped into their zones and just waited for a mistake.

So, when I reached out to Vincent Verhei of Football Outsiders, one of my questions was simply, “Will a switch to more man concepts actually make a big difference against teams not named the Patriots?”

Here is his in-depth answer:

Well, when a team says it will play more man-to-man coverage, it usually means they plan on blitzing more. Not all the time, of course, but it's not like you see many teams playing man across the board with two safeties deep. What's interesting about this for Pittsburgh is that their blitzing strategy changed drastically in 2016.

The average defense uses a blitz (defined here as five or more pass-rushers) about 30 percent of the time, and the average yards per play allowed goes from about 6.5 yards in non-blitzes to about 6.0 for blitzes.

Here are the Steelers' numbers on blitzes over the last few seasons:

* 2014: Blitz 36 percent of the time, give up 7.2 yards per play on non-blitzes, 6.8 yards per play on blitzes.

* 2015: Blitz 35 percent of the time, give up 7.3 yards per play on non-blitzes, 5.5 yards per play on blitzes.

* 2016: Blitz 19 percent of the time, give up 6.4 yards per play on non-blitzes, 8.2 yards per play on blitzes.

In short, the Steelers blitzed much less in 2016 than they had in prior years, and they got torched more often when they did. It's hard to see what caused these changes. Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler were still coaching the defense. The only new cornerback in 2016 was Artie Burns. He was much better overall than Antwon Blake had been in 2015, but maybe he struggled in one-on-one coverage than Blake had? I guess the answer to your question is: an increase in man coverage will hurt the Steelers if they play like they did last year, but it could help if they play like they did before that.

In this case, numbers don’t lie, and the Steelers got absolutely torched when they blitzed in 2016. However, they were more stingy when they didn’t blitz in 2016 compared to the previous seasons.

This all comes back to Keith Butler’s desire to not have to rely on the blitz, and this, maybe more than specific coverage schemes in the secondary, is how you beat a team like the New England Patriots. If you blitz a quarterback like Tom Brady, he will literally and figuratively pick you apart, just look at the 2016 AFC Championship game. However, if you can get pressure with just your front 4-5 players, leaving your secondary in tact against their counterparts, you have a chance to succeed.

This philosophy is not new, and doesn’t just equate to success against New England. Rather, it shows the team can experience success not only against Brady and the boys, but possibly against the rest of their schedule, and the numbers echo this sentiment.