There’s been plenty of reporting early on in camp about the implementation of the Steelers practicing some Cover-2 alignments defensively. Marc wrote a little about that already.
Many, including myself, thought that may not mean a complete overhaul yet and that the Steelers have traditionally mixed up their scheme in the past already. However, defensive coordinator Keith Butler said today in regards to the Cover-2, “It’s going to be a big part of what we do this year.”
Mike Tomlin is a member of the Tony Dungy coaching tree, who’s well known for using his Cover-2, or “Tampa-2” scheme. I’d like to dig in a little bit to what that may mean for this defense going forward.
To put it in the simplest terms, the biggest difference is that in the Cover-2, the 2 safeties are responsible for covering the deep portion of the field, cutting it in half between them. This means that the outside cornerbacks tend to play closer to the line of scrimmage, and will jam receivers at the line more than Steelers fans may be used to seeing.
A Cover-2 scheme works well when a team has a lot of athleticism at the safety and linebacker position, and cornerbacks that are able to shed blocks and be aggressive.
This scheme will put a lot of pressure on Mike Mitchell and Shamarko Thomas. With the cornerbacks playing shallow zone coverage, that leaves a lot of area for the safeties to cover.
That being said, one slight difference between a traditional Cover-2, and the Tampa-2 is mainly the responsibility of the middle linebacker. The Tampa-2 often would almost split the deep part of the field up into thirds (like a cover-3), and has the safeties covering the sidelines, while the MLB handles the deep middle of the field. Check out the graphic below to see what that looks like.
Now, I’m not sure which way the Steelers will go, but I would say that Tomlin’s ties to the Tampa Bay defense and the fact that they team drafted an insanely athletic linebacker in Ryan Shazier last season is a good indication they may lean that way.
I would say that all of the Steelers’ linebackers are above average in pass coverage, which should really help in a transition to the scheme.
Corners in the scheme are unique as well. Lockdown, man to man corners aren’t necessary. What is important is that they are aggressive in bumping at the line of scrimmage, and above average tacklers for their position. Runs to the outside will kill the scheme if the cornerbacks don’t at least contain the runner back to the inside.
I would say that fits the currently roster pretty well, and could result in a big bounce-back year for Cortez Allen. William Gay and Antwon Blake are both aggressive corners capable of shedding blocks.
Stopping the run in the Tampa-2 scheme relies more on the front-7 staying in their lanes and being disciplined in the scheme than beating your man one on one. The idea is often to direct a runner towards the weakside linebacker, so it’s important that he is a solid tackler (see Derrick Brooks and Lance Briggs). I think that Lawrence Timmons would be perfect at that spot.
I wonder a little bit about the fit along the defensive line, where a Tampa-2 typically employs smaller, quicker players. That doesn’t really describe any of the lineman the Steelers currently have, but I also don’t think we’re going to see a completely traditional Tampa-2 or Cover-2.
The strength of the defense is that is really helps stop Quarterbacks from dinking and dunking a defense to death, which Steelers fans will like to hear. It, like Dick Lebeau’s schemes, is a bend don’t break defense. The philosophy is don’t give up the big play, and make teams settle for short gains until your corners can jump a route or your front 4 can get a sack.
That’s not to say there aren’t holes in the concept as well. Certain areas on the field, such as behind the corners and in front of the safeties will be vulnerable. I also think that the run defense could suffer somewhat (although it wasn’t great last year either).
The Tampa-2 also relies heavily on the defensive line to bring pressure on the QB, and while Cam Heyward is a penetrator, I wonder if he and the rest of the DL can consistently bring heat without blitzing.
That being said, I think that a combination of the new and old is the way to go for the Steelers. Mixing up the schemes can only help in confusing opposing offenses.
If the defense can be just decent this year, the team could be really dangerous with that offense.