FOXBORO -- It's time for Keith Butler to make good on his promise.
"We can’t always play zone, especially against people like the Patriots," the Steelers defensive coordinator told Pittsburgh’s 93.7 The Fan over the summer. “You look at the people who have beaten the Patriots in the past and a lot of them played man-to-man. I think the last time we beat them [in 2011], we were playing a lot of man-to-man coverage.”
If the Steelers were to play tight man-to-man Sunday -- taking a page from the Dolphins, Texans and others who've given Tom Brady trouble in the past -- they'll be giving the Patriots something different than what they saw last year in the AFC title game.
But so far at least, according to Bill Belichick, they're essentially running the same scheme they were a year ago.
Instead the defensive changes the Steelers have made compared to a year ago have been more personnel-based. Back in the mix is Cam Heyward, a dominant interior defensive lineman. Longtime Browns corner Joe Haden was added to the roster and could return from a broken leg he suffered last month. Out is arguably the team's top defender, linebacker Ryan Shazier, who suffered a scary season-ending back injury on Monday Night Football last week.
Because Shazier was so critical to everything the Steelers did defensively, they have no one-for-one replacement and they've been forced to adjust without him, Belichick explained Wednesday.
"They’ve had to replace him," he said. "They’ve played more dime defense with him out. They’re primarily a nickel team going back to last year when it was [Lawrence] Timmons and Shazier. A lot of nickel this year. They’ve played a little more dime this year and in the last couple of weeks in third-down situations -- not on early downs. I'd say that would be the biggest change. That’s not really a change, but that has shown up."
Base. Nickel. Dime. Whatever the package, the Steelers still seem to favor matchup-zones. They're a group that loves to pressure and blitz from those looks, and now without Shazier (and potentially Haden), a shift to more man-to-man might be unrealistic.
Shazier's size and athleticism allows him to shadow backs and tight ends. If the Steelers choose to replace him in passing situations with a defensive back -- as Belichick suggests they have -- then that should open up opportunities for the Patriots to run the football.
If that's the case, the ripple effect feels predictable.
The Steelers could be forced to bring an extra defender into the box to stop the New England ground game. That removes one body from the secondary. And if Butler's calling for zone defenses -- because he doesn't like his 'backers manned-up on Patriots backs, or his safeties on Rob Gronkowski -- then that gives Patriots pass-catchers more room to operate and wider windows for Brady to throw through.
All of a sudden it's the AFC Championship Game again.
It seems like an almost impossible decision for Butler and head coach Mike Tomlin. Do they try to survive with the schemes that have gotten them to 11-2, even if Tom Brady's proven time and again that he can dice them up? Or do they trust a shaky set of man defenders against one of the most high-powered offenses in football?
The Steelers could try to get by with defensive backs jamming at the line of scrimmage, hope to upset Brady's timing, and let Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, TJ Watt and Bud Dupree do their best to get into the Patriots backfield. But that may be asking a lot of a unit that just gave up 38 points to Joe Flacco and the NFL's No. 27 offense in yards per game.
Unfortunately for Butler, with the players he has at his disposal, the game plan he cooked up for the Patriots this summer may already be shot.