Butler's changes pay off for Steelers
The Steelers are in the midst of a philosophical evolution on defense.
Their linebackers no longer are burdened with making most of the big stops. Instead, the demands are greater on the defensive front.
“There were times in the past when we sat more on blocks, and let the linebackers make plays,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “In this defense, we (defensive linemen) have more freedom.”
The Steelers also are far more aggressive. It's a tactical, if not attitudinal change that sometimes leaves them vulnerable between the 20s. Yet, it's made them more efficient in the red zone, where they are ranked 10th in the NFL (51.52 percent).
It's a slight change from legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to his successor, former linebackers coach Keith Butler.
The bottom line for the Steelers' first-year coordinator is how the defense has fared in the end zone.
The Steelers are fifth in the AFC in scoring defense, one of the reasons why the defending AFC North champions are at 6-4 as they prepare to play at Seattle on Sunday.
“We want to be aggressive. We want to get the turnovers,” Butler said. “All that stuff is good. But we have to do better with our coverage ability and not give people 300 passing yards per game.”
The numbers suggest the Steelers haven't improved much in pass defense. They are ranked 27th (278.4 yards), which is where they finished last season.
However, they are on pace to get more than their 2014 total of 11 interceptions. They are ranked 12th with nine, including safety Mike Mitchell's team-high three.
“We want to get in situations where we hit people when they catch the ball,” Butler said. “We've got to tackle better and get people around the ball, and we'll be challenged to do that when we go to Seattle.”
While Butler isn't overly satisfied with how the defense has progressed since replacing LeBeau — who moved on to Tennessee following the 2014 season — the Steelers defense consistently delivers plays that have either shifted momentum or sealed victories.
Heyward credits Butler for creating a culture of confidence in the locker room.
“There are lot more blitzes involved, and there are more opportunities to execute one-on-ones,” Heyward said. “When we win the one-on-ones, we're a much better, successful team, and that's nothing against Coach LeBeau's defenses.”
Butler hasn't been shackled by the schemes and strategies of his predecessor. He has made subtle and obvious changes that have impacted the run defense and the pass rush.
“He tweaked the defense into things he likes,” linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “We still have many of the old concepts, but (Butler) has simplified things so we can play faster and communicate better.
“In my situation, I didn't know a lot about the mental aspect of football. So Coach Butler has taught us all about the mental side of the game.”
The Steelers aren't committing the kinds of inexcusable penalties that often haunted them in previous years, including back-to-back 8-8 seasons. They have been consistently good against the run and have allowed few big plays.
Still, Butler said he believes there's room for improvement. While the Steelers are fifth in sacks (28), they are 22nd in total defense (371.4 yards).
“I will like where our defense is at when we win the Super Bowl,” said Butler, who pointed out the first game the unit played together was in the season opener at New England.
“The more they play together, the better they are going to be. They are going to get used to what I am calling and what the other coaches are telling them. We will change things from week-to-week, but they've been really good about keeping up with what we are trying to do.”
The defense has improved, in part, because of the play of Mitchell and strong safety Will Allen. And Butler raves about the work he's gotten from rookie linebacker Bud Dupree and cornerbacks Antwon Blake and Ross Cockrell.
“The young guys have played good football,” Butler said. “You have to teach guys what they can handle mentally. I want to make sure my guys are comfortable with what we're doing.”
Butler seemingly is comfortable and confident in the changes he made to a defense that could decide the Steelers' playoff fate during a potentially grueling stretch of games against Seattle, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Denver.
Expectations used to be that LeBeau would devise the right formula for success. Now all eyes are on Butler, who continues to reshape and redefine a rejuvenated defense.
“There are things that I like that we've done, but there are things that I haven't liked. We are still going to try to correct some of those things, get into a little bit better shape.”