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Pittsburgh Steelers

Improving pass defense will be Steelers preseason priority

A Pittsburgh Steelers helmet sits on the sidelines of the indoor practice field before an NFL football practice, in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. The Steelers face the Denver Broncos in an NFL Divisional playoff football game in Denver on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

PITTSBURGH — In many ways, it is hard to separate the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cover 2 defense.

Bud Carson invented the scheme when he was the Steelers’ defensive coordinator in the 1970s. Current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive backs coach in 2002 when they played Cover 2 extensively under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin while winning the only Super Bowl in franchise history.

However, the Steelers learned a valuable, albeit painful lesson, when they were thumped 36-17 by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in last season’s AFC Championship Game. In reviewing video from that game, defensive coordinator Keith Butler and Tomlin concluded that they needed to begin mixing in more man-to-man coverage.

Thus, the Steelers will focus more on honing their man-to-man skills during training camp and in the preseason games.

The switch in philosophy is likely to create competition for playing time among the cornerbacks. All three starters return — Artie Burns and Russ Cockrell on the outside and William Gay in the slot — but Senquez Golson, Coty Sensabuagh and Cameron Sutton will all get a chance to make an impression if they shine in man situations.

Golson was the Steelers’ second-round draft pick in 2015 from Mississippi, but he has yet to play in a regular-season game because of injuries. Sensabuagh, a sixth-year pro, was signed as a free agent in the offseason. Sutton was the Steelers’ third-round choice in this year’s draft from Tennessee.

The Steelers also drafted Utah cornerback Brian Allen in the fifth round, but he is considered more of a long-term project.

While Butler was intrigued by what he saw from a healthy Golson and the newcomers during OTAs and minicamp, he admits that he won’t get a true read of any of them until seeing them play in preseason games.

“You sit there and watch them in shorts, and you say, ‘Yeah, OK, that looks pretty good,’” Butler said. “I think Artie’s becoming a pretty good press corner, and you hope some of the guys you drafted can help you.”

The Steelers were 18th in NFL during the 2016 regular season in passing yards allowed, with an average of 246.1 a game. However, they had no answer for Brady, who completed 32 of 42 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns.

Like his mentor, former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Butler is a firm believer that the ability to cover and rush the quarterback go hand in hand in constituting a strong pass defense.

The Steelers finished seventh in the league with an average of 2.4 sacks last season. Though they sacked Brady twice in the AFC title game, they were unable to get consistent pressure on him, especially while running their base 3-4 defense.

Furthermore, the Steelers had trouble generating a rush all season when they weren’t running stunts.

“We’ve got to be able to develop a four-man rush and not just blitz all the time,” Butler said. “What we did last year is, we ran a lot of false blitzes that weren’t really blitzes but appeared to be blitzes, and played zone behind it.

“This year, we have to be able to play conventional coverages with conventional people playing those coverages, with conventional people rushing the passer. We got to be able to do that in order to advance defensively, in my opinion. We got to be able to put pressure on the quarterbacks with just four men.”

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