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Steelers ready to 'evolve' with man coverage entering crucial stretch

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Clark calls for Pennsylvania Super Bowl (0:55)

Ryan Clark makes a bold prediction that both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers will make it to Minnesota, which would make it an all Pennsylvania Super Bowl. (0:55)

PITTSBURGH -- Aaron Rodgers. Deshaun Watson. Andrew Luck.

All are talented signal-callers that the Steelers' secondary doesn't have to face in the second half of the season due to injury. Coupled with Tom Brady and Marcus Mariota on the latter part of the schedule, the Steelers had prepared for an onslaught of talented passers that would require a versatile coverage plan.

Now, Pittsburgh is left to process the quarterback in front of them, who, this week, is Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett.

"Good for us, bad for them," said Steelers cornerback Artie Burns of the injured quarterbacks. "I wanted to play against them."

Injuries to the opposing teams' quarterbacks have softened the Steelers' schedule over the past three seasons, with Luck set to miss three straight matchups with Pittsburgh, including this Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Peyton Manning, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton and Ryan Tannehill also missed Steelers games during that span.

But Brady and others will inevitably test the merits of this improved defense, just like Matthew Stafford did with 423 passing yards in Week 8.

If the Steelers are to have a complete defensive turnaround, they'll likely rely on man and zone coverages from now until February.

Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake stressed that in the spring, and he wasn't backing down during the bye week, either.

"As we develop as a secondary and teams start to hone in on what we're doing, we're going to have to evolve too," Lake said. "I think man-to-man will be a part of that."

The Steelers rank second in passing defense after failing to crack the top 15 in the past three seasons. They've done this thanks to consistent pressure (26 sacks ranks fourth), timely red zone work (16.4 points allowed per week ranks second) and a cohesive secondary that returns three starters plus Joe Haden, a timely addition.

Steelers corners have mostly gone unnoticed this season, which is exactly what coach Mike Tomlin wants.

The Steelers say they've mixed man and zone coverages, particularly with a "fire zone" hybrid defense that allows outside corners to play in one-on-one settings. Stafford had minimal problems meeting these defenses in Week 8, though many Steelers agree the 20-15 win against the Detroit Lions was their worst coverage game from an assignment standpoint.

Burns was a press-man corner at the University of Miami who estimates he has played man about 35 percent of this season's snaps. He knows the Steelers haven't utilized the entire defensive playbook, though they've been practicing every page of it each week. He hopes rolling out the right coverages will leave them more prepared than a year ago in Foxborough, where Brady's New England offense flamed Pittsburgh for 36 points in the playoffs.

"Tight coverage, close coverage, will help the [pressure] get there," Burns said. "The quarterback's got to be back there patting the ball. Then we can mix in some zone too; that's when the picks come."

That defensive evolution requires more reps against top quarterbacks, of which the Steelers don't see enough. The Patriots' Dec. 17 appearance at Heinz Field is sure to promise a playoff atmosphere. Will they throw everything at Brady in efforts to be unpredictable or reduce the playbook and save some options for the playoffs?

First, the Steelers are worried about Brissett, who threw for 308 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday in a 20-14 win over the Houston Texans.

"Whenever we need it, we will go to [man]," Burns said. "We’re playing teams that want to put the ball down the field. We’ve been training for this, the chance to play good receivers and quarterbacks. We’ve got a little stretch where we’re going to keep seeing teams that throw the ball. We’ve got to start honing on our technique."

Haden is eager to see that process play out. The Steelers signed Haden to a three-year, $27 million deal in part for his man-coverage skills.

"[Burns] feels like he can cover everybody just the same way I could," Haden said.