Steelers' man-to-man plans against Patriots may be unrealistic


Steelers' man-to-man plans against Patriots may be unrealistic

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.


Brady to Oprah on Belichick: 'We don't agree on absolutely everything'

Brady to Oprah on Belichick: 'We don't agree on absolutely everything'

Most of the highlights of Tom Brady's sit-down with Oprah Winfrey were released here and here last week before the interview was broadcast Sunday morning on Winfrey's OWN channel.

Also, in the hour-long interview, the Patriots quarterback was asked by Winfrey, amid an offseason filled with reports of tension between him and coach Bill Belichick, “Is there something going on with you and Belichick?”

“Umm, no. I mean, I love him," Brady said. "I love that he is an incredible coach, mentor for me. He’s pushed me in a lot of ways. Like everything, we don’t agree on absolutely everything, but that’s relationships.”

When Winfrey asked about his "separate training place" - the TB12 Sports Therapy Center next to Gillette Stadium that Brady and business partner and trainer Alex Guerrero have run for five years - Brady said he wouldn't characterize it as separate.

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” said Brady, who stayed away from Patriots voluntary workouts this spring, has worked out on his own with teammates, but did report for mandatory mini-camp June 5-7. “I probably do some of my own techniques a little differently than the rest of the team. The team, I would say, like most teams, is very systematic in their approach. What I learned, I guess, is different than some of the things that are systematic, but that work for me.”

Brady said he's talked about those techniques with Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Belichick restricted Guerrero's access to the Patriots sideline and team flights last season. 

“It’s nothing that I don’t talk about with my coach and owner,” Brady said. “It is what I want to do and is what I need to be the best player I can be. Hopefully, you can support that.”

More highlights from the Brady interview: 

On why he gave up his court fight in the Deflategate case and served his NFL-imposed four-game suspension:

"Too much anxiety," Brady said. "And I realized I couldn't win." Watch that clip here: 


How this Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in February was a little easier to take than his others, watch here: 



James Harrison on Patriots' culture: 'I didn't have a problem with it’

James Harrison on Patriots' culture: 'I didn't have a problem with it’

As adversaries and former players openly wonder if the football culture in Foxboro is "fun" enough, recently-retired Pittsburgh Steelers legend James Harrison is asking, why does it matter?

In an interview with CBS Sports Network earlier this week, the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year reflected on the final stop of his 15-year career, the Patriots, who signed him late in the 2017 regular season after Pittsburgh released him, as insurance for New England as they geared up for their run to Super Bowl LII.

The biggest takeaway from his time with the Patriots?

"Discipline. That’s the big thing," the five-time Pro Bowler said. "They’re not going to ask you to do anything that is outside of what you’re capable of doing. And it’s, you learn the system and you go out there and you play it. And like I said, it's very regimented, so if you’re a guy that’s not used to discipline, you’re not going to like it there."

Harrison said it was even stricter than his years with former Steelers coach Bill Cowher, with whom he won his first Super Bowl in 2006.

"Cowher wasn't as regimented as Bill [Belichick] was," Harrison said. "Like I say, I didn’t have a problem with it. You know, I enjoyed my time there, you know, I thanked them for the opportunity they gave me to continue to play."

Philadelphia Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson has repeatedly mocked the Patriots since his team them in Super Bowl LII, calling them "arrogant" and a "fear-based organization", even telling the Pardon My Take podcast, "I'd much rather have fun and win a Super Bowl than be miserable and win five Super Bowls."

Meanwhile, 49ers defensive end Cassius Marsh, who was released after eight games with the Pats in 2017, says he hated his time in New England and didn't have fun, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, "I confronted [Belichick] about all the things that were going on. I won't get into detail, but it was B.S. things they were doing. It just wasn't a fan."