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Steelers Film Room: The Evolution of Keith Butler's Cover 2 Scheme - Part 1

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Coming off the bye week, we take a look at how Keith Butler's cover 2 defense has done so far this season over a trilogy of articles.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago a commenter requested we take a look back at the Pittsburgh Steelers transition to a Cover 2 defense in our Steelers Film Room series. Seemed like a good bye week challenge, and we have finally started this three-part series where we start with the rough beginnings of the Cover 2, and transition to the scheme which has been creating turnovers for the 2015 Steelers.

Before we get started, realize the first GIF is from the preseason. Yes, they are meaningless games, but they are also a great starting point for where this defense started and where they are now. Other than the game itself, it should be noted the Steelers defense has also had continuity on their defensive roster which has helped the transition to the Cover 2 defensive system. For instance, in the first play shown, Ross Cockrell is playing for the Buffalo Bills, not the Steelers.

The Cover 2 system was developed for each defender to play their "zone" and to always have their eyes on the football. It was the Cover 2 scheme which has produced some of the finest takeaway teams in recent history. The Steelers start with the Cover 2 wasn't pretty, but as you see throughout this series, it is improving each week.

First Play:

In the Cover 2 zone defense, if one player makes a mental or physical mistake it leaves another player out to dry. In this game Mike Mitchell wasn't playing, recovering from a hamstring pull in the preseason, which equated to a safety tandem of Will Allen and Shamarko Thomas. Despite the Cover 2's general philosophy in the secondary, the defense is still based on the basics.

On this play there are two main issues which lead to Bills QB EJ Manuel hitting Charles Clay down the seam for a big touchdown. First, no pressure on the quarterback. If a NFL caliber quarterback, yes even EJ Manuel, has time to throw the ball downfield, they will complete more than they miss. The Steelers' 4-man pass rush doesn't come near to collapsing the pocket, providing Manuel a quick and easy read.

Without the pass rush moving Manuel off his launching point, the play works in time, and a mental mistake by Thomas in the back end leaves Will Allen hung out to dry. Ryan Shazier played his zone well, he could have been a bit deeper in his drop, but he forced Manuel to put air under the ball when he throws. Notice Thomas having to turn and run back to the football before Clay makes the catch. This screams mistake as the goal of the safety in the Cover 2 should always have the play in front of them.

A lack of pass rush and a mental mistake spell disaster for the Steelers defense in this play, and was the start of a trend of big plays against the Steelers defense early in the Cover 2 process.

Second Play:

Another play, this time in the Week 2 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, and another pass down the seam which resulted in a touchdown. Again, it comes down to fundamentals. Some want to over-complicate the NFL game, but it is still football.

On this pass play from Colin Kaepernick to Torrey Smith, the first mistake is on Jarvis Jones, who lines up over Smith on the line of scrimmage. Jones attempts, but fails, to get his hands on Smith to disrupt his route, which gives the speedy receiver a chance to continue his route unabated. The next mistake is simple. Will Allen takes a bad angle, not accounting for Smith's speed. The result? A great throw down the seam, looks similar to the first GIF, and a safety who makes a mistake which ends in a touchdown.

The trend continued as fans took to social media to complain about the Cover 2 system and how it should be scrapped, but things would improve.

Third Play:

On this play you see the St. Louis Rams trying to go back to the same well the Bills and 49ers went to in previous weeks, but this time the Steelers don't have a mental gaffe which results in a touchdown, rather the play results in an interception.

Notice the receiver get a free release, but this is as designed as James Harrison rushed the quarterback. Lawrence Timmons does his job to perfection by turning and running with the receiver, forcing a perfect throw for a completion. Foles slightly overthrows the receiver, but it is Will Allen who plays deep enough to keep the play in front of him, which equates in an intercpetion.

It was Allen who was fooled the week prior vs. the 49ers, but not against the Rams. It was after this game you start to see the Cover 2 resemble what it should as a defense.


The start wasn't good. Throughout the preseason and the early portions of the regular season saw the Steelers repeatedly burned in their Cover 2 scheme; however, you will notice the plays which were made weren't against the system, but players making mistakes. The system is only as good as the players playing in it, and you'll start to see as players continue their development in the system, the continuity shows itself in big plays in the pass defense.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series coming Thursday.