Steelers Must Man-Up if They Are Ever Going to Beat Patriots

“Press/Man” might be the Kryptonite the Steelers have been seeking to finally deal with New England.

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The anticipation is palpable here at St. Vincent College, but so, too, is reality.

And for the Steelers, reality looms in New England.

No matter how much optimism and excitement is generated by the preseason physicality of a “Backs-on-’Backers” drill or the precision and play-making of Ben Roethlisberger during a two-minute exercise.

“They out-coach and out-play people,” Roethlisberger acknowledged regarding New England.

The Patriots have been doing both for a long time now.

They’re the defending Super Bowl champions.

They’ve won two of the last three Super Bowls and five of the last 16 (twice additionally in that span the Patriots reached the Super Bowl but didn’t win it).

And they’ve already been anointed by USA Today as the team that’s about to go 16-0 in the regular season on the way to defeating the Packers in Super Bowl LII.

So what, if anything, can the Steelers do about that?

No. 1, make a point of not losing to inferior teams in the regular season, as has been the Steelers’ habit in recent seasons (Philadelphia last season, for example), in an effort to earn a bye and as many home games as possible in the postseason.

No. 2, find a way not to lose to New England on Dec. 17 at Heinz Field (the most problematic aspect of the Steelers’ four-pronged approach toward avoiding the inevitable, which is another playoff failure at Gillette Stadium).

No. 3, find a way to hand the ball off to someone other than DeAngelo Williams and to throw it to someone other than Cobi Hamilton in the AFC Championship Game (in other words, have Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant all healthy and available rather than injured and/or suspended).

And No. 4, get in the Patriots’ faces.

The Steelers have been working on No. 4 in particular since Organized Team Activities in the spring. It involves playing more press/man-to-man coverage in the secondary instead of continuing to hone the zone approach Tom Brady dissected last season.

The zones don’t work.

Blitzing Brady doesn’t work.

And getting pressure with a four-man rush can be effective, but it’s difficult to generate.

But if the Steelers can physically mess with New England’s smaller receivers, if they can line up directly across from them and then re-direct routes and disrupt timing just after the snap, they’ll have a chance (it’s worth trying since the Patriots’ receivers aren’t exactly the types that are going to run by people).

After all, Brady can’t throw every pass to Rob Gronkowski.

“Press/Man” might be the Kryptonite the Steelers have been seeking to finally deal with New England.

Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake wouldn’t go that far, but he’s not opposed in the least to having a different approach, a more aggressive approach, at the Steelers’ disposal this time.

“We need to evaluate our play in general defensively as a whole in regard to great teams like New England,” Lake said. “If ‘man’ is part of that formula going forward, then we better have worked on it from OTAs, really, until we play (the Patriots). I think that’s where we are.

“We’re negligent if we don’t keep developing tools to give us a chance and to be flexible enough to have different things available to us.”

Lake’s stated objective in training camp is to have that man-to-man capability in place, just in case.

The defensive backs, cornerback Artie Burns in particular, are honing their skills toward that end on a daily basis.

It’s not as exciting as “Backs-on-’Backers” or watching Roethlisberger run the two-minute offense.

But for the Steelers, it might ultimately prove defining.

“It just has to kind of be in the forefront of our overall scheme,” Lake said. “I don’t know what they’ll call. I don’t know what our (defensive) coordinator will call.

“But I want to have our guys ready for that if that comes to pass.”

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section