LATROBE -- The Pittsburgh Steelers of the cover-3 secondary behind a 3-4 front are evolving. And Mike Tomlin was at forefront of the movement Tuesday at practice.
Tomlin, who often roams between position groupings shouting instruction and encouragement, worked primarily with the defensive secondary yesterday, and looked like the position coach of his younger days as he taught his defensive backs the specifics of playing cover-2.
Instead of having a blitzing, dodging, darting strong safety at the line wreaking havoc, as the Steelers used so often with Troy Polamalu in their cover-3 (two corners off the line with a free safety in the middle), a cover-2 involves two corners up on the line backed by two deep safeties.
After Tomlin ran a non-stop streak of hard instruction at his defensive backfield yesterday, he walked away and said, "We're going to build this ship, but we're not going to build it all today." And the group was dismissed.
Ryan Clark, the team's former cover-3 free safety who's now an analyst for ESPN, was at St. Vincent College for the practice. He said moving into the direction of a cover-2, and ultimately a 4-3 base, makes a lot of sense.
"I saw a lot of the early things they were putting in with two high safeties," Clark said. "From me looking at it, it looks like an evaluation of the personnel, of the people they have, both on defense and also on offense."
"When they were able to score all those points, those weren't amazing defenses," Clark said. "They got Bob Sanders and then they got better, but they played cover-2. It was a bend-but-don't-break, don't-give-up-touchdowns, make-people-kick-field-goals type defense. I'm not saying that's where they're going here, but I also know cover-2's a way to minimize big plays. And when you're looking at a team that can score the way this team should be able to score, I think Coach Tomlin's putting his imprint on that part of the defense."
Tomlin, of course, coached a cover-2 secondary to a championship with the Tampa Bay Bucs as an assistant. And when he came to Pittsburgh, he preferred not to interfere with the success Dick LeBeau was having with his two-gapping defensive line and his cover-3 secondary.
But, the talent has changed and so has the coordinator. Keith Butler is calling the defensive plays now, but the evolution toward Tomlin's defensive playbook became obvious yesterday.
"He can now get with Coach Butts and say, 'Hey, this is how I feel things should work.'" Clark said. "And now Coach Butler can put it in as his program, his system. This is the time to make the change."
Also, Clark pointed out, "Gone are the days of Aaron Smith. He could've been an All-Pro defensive end every year if he wanted to, but he did his job. You don't have those guys anymore. You don't have a Brett Keisel who taught himself to two-gap. You don't have a Casey Hampton who can do those things. So I think they have to kind of make that switch. This is the time to do it."
The Steelers, of course, have Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt as their defensive ends, and both have shown penetrating skills throughout college and their brief pro careers. The Steelers just signed Heyward to a six-year, $59.3 million contract.
"You didn't pay Cam that money to be a two-gapper. He's a penetrator. That's what he does. That's what he's good at," Clark said. "You have to get pressure if you're going to play cover-2. You drafted Bud (Dupree). You have Jarvis (Jones). You have those guys. Those guys have to be able to rush the passer, and I think what's going to make this team still good is if they can perfect cover-2 to a point to where it's something they can play throughout the game. Now, unless you run your fire zones, unless you run your (cover)-3, the things this defense is known for doing, with it being a young group you're not having to re-teach people. You don't have to re-teach Troy and say, 'Hey, Troy, I need you to learn to play cover-2.' Mike Mitchell comes from a place where they played cover-2 because they had great backers. You look at what should be all first-round draft picks in James Harrison, Bud, Jarvis, (Ryan) Shazier, (Lawrence) Timmons at linebacker, now you've got to count on these guys to be able to drop, to be able to run, and so I think they have the personnel to do it. Coach Tomlin is putting his imprint, his stamp, on this."
The Steelers used a four-man front close to 50 percent of the time last season, but it's likely they want to use more of that nickel front this season. But Clark cautioned against calling the Steelers a 4-3 team at this point.
"They don't have 4-3, all-game personnel yet," he said. "If you draft a Jarvis Jones, and you draft a Bud Dupree, you draft them both to play all the time. You go 4-3
on first downs, now one of those guys is out of the game. You don't draft those guys to watch. So I don't think it goes totally 4-3, but if one of those guys can play
hand up, off the ball, or one of them is good enough to play the end and be stout, then it can move that way."