Now that the Pittsburgh Steelers and long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau have mutually decided to part ways with one another, or so we’re led to believe, we’ll have to wait patiently to see who his successor will be. All signs point to it being linebackers coach Keith Butler and it’s for obvious reasons.
Butler, who has been with the Steelers since he was hired by former head coach Bill Cowher in 2003, has long been tabbed the heir apparent to LeBeau. He has had a few opportunities over the years to leave to become a defensive coordinator elsewhere, but in all three instances the Steelers convinced him to stay by not only reportedly paying him more money, but also promising him LeBeau’s job once his time was up in Pittsburgh.
In 2009, Butler turned down an opportunity to interview with the Miami Dolphins for their then-vacant defensive coordinator position. At that time Butler reportedly made a “handshake agreement” with the Steelers that he would be the one to succeed LeBeau in Pittsburgh, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In 2011 the Steelers reportedly denied Butler permission to interview with the Arizona Cardinals for their then-open defensive coordinator job because he was still under contract.
After his contract was up following the 2011 season, Butler was scheduled to interview for the open defensive coordinator position with the Indianapolis Colts, but that interview never took place. At that time it was again speculated that Butler was not only given another raise, but also reassured that he would indeed eventually succeed LeBeau.
If Butler isn’t promoted now that LeBeau is gone, you would think that he would want to leave as well.
While Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin wasn’t the one that hired Butler, the two were in no way strangers to one another when the former was hired to succeed Cowher in 2007, as the two coached together at Memphis and Arkansas State.
Butler’s coaching career began at Memphis, where he coached linebackers from 1990-97 and also coached defensive ends and special teams (1995-97). In 1998 Butler served as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Arkansas State, where at the same time Tomlin coached the defensive backs.
If Butler does indeed wind up being named the Steelers new defensive coordinator it’s hard to imagine him not running a 3-4 defense of some type. During his playing days Butler played linebacker in a 3-4 defense as a member of the Seattle Seahawks. In addition, so far during his coaching career he’s almost exclusively taught the 3-4.
Being as Tomlin coached a 4-3 defense with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings prior to becoming the head coach of the Steelers, many have speculated that he would eventually run that scheme in Pittsburgh. However, when asked if running one as opposed to the other had any advantages last March during the NFL Owners’ Meetings, Tomlin said that sub-packages and pressure on opposing quarterback defines defenses more than the actual alignment does.
“I think in today’s NFL it’s about situational football and what offenses do, and how many receivers they have on the field,” Tomlin said last March, according to steelers.com. “Oftentimes we spend a lot of time in sub-package football, whether you are a 3-4 or a 4-3 (front).
“In today’s NFL, most times you have five or six defensive backs on the field. And I really think that is the discussion as opposed to whether you are a 3-4 or a 4-3, to be honest with you.”
On top of everything else, the Steelers simply don’t have the defensive personnel currently in place to run a typical 4-3 front. Instead of switching from a 3-4, the Steelers will more than likely try to be more multiple on defense assuming Butler is the one to succeed LeBeau and Tomlin said as much last March.
“We have to be multiple,” Tomlin said. “We have to be capable of providing pressure, but more important than that you have to be able to provide pressure with four or fewer (pass rushers). I think that’s what gives you the flexibility to be something to deal with.”
When you also closely examine what Tomlin had to say last March about defensive play in today’s NFL, you will see that he said having solid play from the safeties is must.
“I think a component of this defense is great safety play,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve been around since the early days for me as a professional. I’ve been around guys like (former Buccaneers safeties) John Lynch and Dexter Jackson.
“And rightfully so, I think that if you’re interested in playing good defense, you better have guys at the safety position who can insert themselves versus. the run and can be what they need to be in the passing game.”
The Steelers surely didn’t get above-the-line play out of their safeties this past season as veterans Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell and Will Allen all failed to record a single interception in addition to all playing a hand in the unit giving up 50 passing plays of 20 yards or more . On top of that, the LeBeau-led defense also failed at getting consistent pressure for a fourth season in a row in 2014 and it resulted in the unit only registering 33 regular-season sacks which was the lowest recorded by a Steelers defense since 1989.
When and if Butler is promoted, he will be tasked with making the changes necessary to vault the Steelers back to the top of several defensive statistical categories. While some of the elements of LeBeau’s defense are likely to remain, Butler is sure to tweak the system in addition to making in more aggressive as well as multiple.