Parsing Keith Butler’s Comments On Using 4-3 Looks

One day after sitting in with head coach Mike Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday officially announced that longtime linebackers coach Keith Butler had been promoted to the defensive coordinator position vacated by the amicable resignation of Dick LeBeau.

While the organization did not feel a need to hold a press conference or treat the in-house change with much fanfare, he did sit down with Bob Labriola for the team’s website in order to answer a few questions.

As you might guess, one of the major themes alluded to in the questioning was regarding what we could expect to change or stay the same as Butler looks to build upon what LeBeau has built over the past decade or so.

Steelers fans certainly like to speculate annually about the team returning to the 4-3 defense that was their base package in their heyday during the 70s, as though merely playing with four defensive linemen and three linebackers would bring back the Steel Curtain.

While Butler conceded that the team “will run som 4-3” under his tutelage, it’s important to try to parse exactly what he means, because, in reality, this doesn’t signify any kind of real change from what we’ve seen in the recent past anyway.

In fact, Butler mentioned specifically the topic of sub-packages when alluding to the Steelers’ usage of the 4-3, and Pittsburgh does indeed essentially use a 4-3 look when they go to the nickel in order to counter the prevalence of three-receiver looks among offenses around the league in this era.

When the Steelers take off the nose tackle and add a defensive back on the field, the Steelers are essentially presenting a scaled-down base 4-3 look due to the way that they employ their remaining personnel.

The defensive ends—in this case, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt—slide inside as the defensive tackles, while the outside linebackers—somewhat up in the air as we sit here in mid-January—slide up as undersized defensive ends.

The inside linebackers stay put, while the defense typically brings down a safety—usually Troy Polamalu, or Will Allen if he’s in the game—up to the second level to fulfill a quasi-linebacker role.

In this look, in essence, the Steelers are presenting a look that employs four linemen and three linebackers, but by scaling down, they create a more mobile base defense that is better equipped to defend the pass.

The defense has had some growing pains over the past couple of years getting adjusted to this look, particularly when opposing offenses chose to exploit this size discrepancy on the ground, which is why they began using the run-stopping buck Vince Williams in the nickel last year.

Whether or not Butler has anything else in mind other than this when he refers to the team utilizing the 4-3 under his tenure as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator remains to be seen, but in the meantime, it’s important to specify just what it is that he was likely referring to.

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