PITTSBURGH -- Steelers fans have reason to be enthused about the way their team addressed its pass-catching problem from a year ago.
But what about the defense?
What about the rush-and-coverage combination that let the Steelers down in New England to a greater degree than did their receivers?
It's not as if their cornerback situation is running eight, nine deep like the receiving position this spring. The Steelers did add a mid-level free agent in Coty Sensabaugh as a reserve cornerback, and they drafted seemingly talented prospects in the third and fifth rounds.
But what about the scheme?
Something has to change about the alleged plan they utilized in New England.
"I'm not talking about any changes in coverage schemes," free safety Mike Mitchell said on this second day of minicamp. "The changes in the secondary are the rookies that we have drafted and the free agents that we brought in."
OK. So after a spring of mixed messages from other secondary members about potential schematic and philosophic changes, the free safety has the last word.
Wednesday was the first day defensive coordinator Keith Butler met with the media since Tom Brady shredded the Steelers for 384 yards and 36 points in the AFC Championship Game. The Steelers played off coverage and seemingly "off pressure" with only two sacks. It was a hopeless endeavor and Brady picked them apart to the tune of a 127.5 passer rating.
"We did what we felt like we had to do against them with where we were at at the time, where our defense was at at the time," said Butler in parroting the post-game commentary of Mike Tomlin.
But, doesn't Brady chew up soft zones?
"He does, sometimes, but last year we changed it up on him, too," Butler said. "The first game he caught us on what we call a triple seam down the middle with Gronk. We had him do this (pump fake) all day long. If you look at our first game, he's sitting there pumping the ball and looking around and stuff. We had a lot of opportunities to sack him and we didn't.
"Like I said, rush and coverage go together. If we would've got some pressure on him and sacked him a couple times and get him cussing his dad-gum offensive linemen out, hey, man, it's a beautiful world for us."
Alas, it was not a beautiful world. The Steelers got to Brady only twice in the second meeting last season, and neither sack came from a traditional pass-rusher. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave got Brady on the Patriots' second possession and Sean Davis had a meaningless sack for no loss in the fourth quarter as the Steelers' edge players spent most of the game dropping into coverage.
"What we did last year, we ran a lot of false blitzes that weren't really blitzes but appeared to be blitzes and played zone behind it," Butler said. "This year we've got to be able to play conventional coverages with conventional people playing those coverages with conventional people rushing the passer. We've got to be able to do that in order to advance defensively, in my opinion. We've got to be able to put pressure on quarterbacks with just four men."
And they have to be better in coverage.
Or to put it another way, they have to do more than spot-drop their corners if they want to beat Brady.
"We knew at the end of last year we needed to develop more than just spot-drop and play zone," Butler said. "We knew that going into the end of the season. But, hey, we felt like that was the best opportunity that we had to try to get to the Super Bowl. So we knew that last year. Right now we're going into training camp and it's going to help on both sides of the ball if we play a little bit more man. Our guys can get used to it, Ben (Roethlisberger) can get used to looking at it, and we can get used to playing a little bit and hopefully we'll get better from it."
But, Butler cautioned, it's not as if the Steelers are going to flip the switch and become exclusively a man-coverage defense.
"No," he said. "We're going to try to build on what our guys can do best. Sometimes it's not until you get in training camp that you figure out 'Hey, maybe we're not as good at this as we thought we should be and maybe we should do this.' That's always the case in training camp. It's a learning experience for all of us. It's going to be a learning experience for me to make sure that I know what my guys can do best and let 'em do it."
NOTES -- The Steelers released WVU RB Rushel Shell and added RB Brandon Brown-Dukes, who was with their practice squad last season. ... The Steelers signed first-round draft pick Watt to a four-year deal with a team option for a fifth season. Watt has been running first team right outside linebacker all spring. ... Tyson Alualu, the free-agent defensive lineman, returned to practice after rehabbing a calf injury. ... Missing Wednesday's workout were Le'Veon Bell, Stephon Tuitt, James Harrison and Ramon Foster, who ran on the side. Limited were Davis, Ryan Shazier and James Conner.
(For more details on the defensive plans that are taking shape, click here for the full Keith Butler transcript.)