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Steelers tinker with pass coverage in minicamp
The Pittsburgh Steelers spent OTAs and minicamp trying to implement a few things that will help them get to their first Super Bowl since losing to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV following the 2010 season.
One of the main objectives this spring has been getting the cornerbacks more exposure to man coverage schemes. The Steelers will continue to play more man coverage in training camp, and if the players adapt well, the coaches will use it in addition to their zone-based defensive packages.
When training camp begins in late July the coaches will continue to take long looks at rookie third-round corner Cameron Sutton, free agent pickup Coty Sensabaugh and Senquez Golson, the Steelers' second-round pick in 2015 who missed his first two seasons with injuries.
For now, veteran William Gay is the starting slot corner and Ross Cockrell is the starter opposite Artie Burns at the other outside corner. But Sutton, Sensabaugh and Golson could push them in camp. If any of them shows a strong ability to play man-to-man the coaches will consider them because the main takeaway after getting drilled by Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC title game was that the Steelers need to play a variety of coverage because elite quarterbacks such as Brady have found ways to pick apart the defense in recent years.
But playing more man coverage is only one area that defensive coordinator Keith Butler targeted for improvement this spring. Butler is a disciple of former Steelers and current Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who always said "rush and coverage work together."
Butler repeated that refrain this week. The Steelers can play man coverage and play it well, but if they don't rush the passer better it won't matter much.
"Coverage and pressure go together, always do," Butler said. "We got to be able to develop a four-man rush and not just blitz all the time. 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."
So can Sutton, Sensabaugh, Golson or someone else be effective in man coverage and change the defense for the better? Butler said he won't know until the team gets to training camp and plays some preseason games.
"I don't know yet," he said. "You sit there and watch them in shorts, and you say, 'Yeah, OK, that looks pretty good.' I think Artie's becoming a pretty good press corner, and you hope some of the guys you drafted can help you, hope T.J. can develop, all those guys can help, and then the young guys that we had last year can continue to help."
The Steelers' offense doesn't need an overhaul, but coordinator Todd Haley will be fine-tuning a unit that boasts quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell.
The issue for the offense last season was the depth behind Brown, a three-time All-Pro receiver. The return of Martavis Bryant will help immensely in that regard.
Bryant, who missed last season on a drug suspension, was one of the league's top big-play threats in 2014 and 2015. His presence will go a long way toward balancing out a group that also has talented players such as Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates among other established NFL players.