Steelers

War Room: Why Butler’s defense fails at big times

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The Saints' Alvin Kamara leaps for a touchdown Sunday in New Orleans. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

The Steelers' 31-28 loss to the Saints was a tough battle between two strong teams with Hall of Fame quarterbacks, both of whom showed out with huge performances. But Drew Brees struck at weaknesses Keith Butler's defense had shown, even before this season.

Let's dig deep ...

TWO-MINUTE DRILL

Where scheme beat team: An elite quarterback can exploit the slightest flaws. Brees threw one touchdown pass, but he made several plays to keep drives alive, and the key was his recognition of the disguised packages Butler schemed for the game.

Butler's plans were effective the previous week against Tom Brady, and the Saints were blanked on half of their first 10 drives. The secondary-heavy formations, which the Steelers have used more often this season, were part of the success, but eventually Brees found weaknesses.

Watch how Brees recognized one of the Steelers' attempts to mask their man coverage of the third quarter:

He was able to pick out that Sean Davis was assigned to cover Alvin Kamara, and that Davis was backed off Kamara to give the look the Steelers are in zone defense. But when Kamara hit his wheel route, Davis was unable to get to his spot and gave up a huge gain.

Those are moments where the subtle attention to detail can win games.

The play of the game for the Saints came when the Steelers had everything lined up in their favor on a 3rd-and-20 on their final drive:

Similar to how Brady ripped the Steelers with a 34-yard pass to Julian Edelman to get the Patriots in scoring position on their final drive, Brees found Ted Ginn running down the middle of the field. The key was to split the Steelers' zone scheme in the middle of the field.

The Patriots were in a 1st-and-15 on the Edelman play, but Brees took a similar advantage to freeze the Steelers' safeties and exploit an open spot on his conversion. Watch how the progression of routes opened up Ginn. The Steelers appeared to be in Cover 4 with Morgan Burnett being the only underneath cover man. The Saints had No. 89, tight end Josh Hill, run a go route to clear out the deep safeties. As Davis stuck with Hill, Ginn ran his deep in route past the sticks and into the space opened up by Davis following Hill.

That's no fluke. That's a well drawn last chance of a shot against a deep zone defense they expected the Steelers to run. It's a great call, but it also exposes a weakness the Steelers had just shown against the Patriots and even earlier when Andy Dalton hit A.J. Green on a deep pass to tie the Steelers late in an Oct. 14 victory over the Bengals.

Because of that, it might have paid to go with a conservative man coverage scheme to prevent such mixups. The zone did work on the big fourth-down stop against the Patriots, but it came back to bite them.

Part of the problem is that Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin haven't given Butler any ballhawks through the draft. Tomlin emphasized improved tackling all training camp and the team has made major strides on that front, but a defense relying on its defensive backs to make big plays needs defenders who can actually make a play on the ball. Joe Haden is the only member of the unit who consistently displays good ball skills, so it may take another investment or two to help the Steelers' defense make more plays in these situations.

Blame for shortcomings in coverage is to be shared between Butler for the schemes, the players for not capitalizing on more mistakes and Tomlin for the increased emphasis on such a plan to highlight the secondary.

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