It isn’t often that a first-year defensive coordinator has the chance to accomplish something a long-time legend had struggled to do in recent years, but that is exactly the opportunity in front of Pittsburgh Steelers coach Keith Butler. The former linebackers’ coach has had the honor of being tutored by the great Dick LeBeau during his 12-year tenure in Pittsburgh, but now will be tasked with doing what Lebeau could not; develop the plethora of young defensive talent Pittsburgh’s roster currently boasts.
For years few were better than Lebeau at this, who, along with Butler, developed talents like Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor, and even Cameron Heyward into some of the best players in the league at their positions. But in recent years, Lebeau and co. struggled to bring along players like Ziggy Hood, Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, and a host of defensive backs highlighted by Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen. While there is no question that not all of these players’ issues stemmed from poor coaching, there is no doubt that a recent trend of undeveloped young talent was beginning to reveal itself in Pittsburgh as older players began to decline rapidly.
While Lebeau will always be a legend and one of the greatest coordinators ever to grace the game of football, that should not diminish the opportunity for impact that Butler can make in just his first season calling the defensive shots. The Steelers offense is loaded with talent, and could be one of the best units to ever lace up cleats for a proud Pittsburgh organization, placing the burden of proof on the defense heading into the 2015 season. That is an unusual spot for a franchise that identifies itself with a “Steel Curtain” style of football that seemed to promote sheer violence as much as it did the sport of football at times.
While those days will always hold value, the tides have unquestionably changed in Pittsburgh, as last year it was the offense that carried the defense to victory more times than not. While Lebeau was able to effectively scheme his way to a watchable level of play from his unit despite massive talent deficiencies, especially in the secondary, the majority of Steelers faithful would say that last year’s defense was one of the weaker groups to ever take the field in Pittsburgh.
That brings us to Butler, who has a host of inexperienced but considerable talent amongst the 2015 Steelers defense to work with. The outside linebacker position, his forte in the past, is in dire need of a future, with veteran James Harrison likely entering his last NFL season. The organization would undoubtedly love rookie Bud Dupree and third-year linebacker Jarvis Jones to become that future, but so far Jones’ has made remarkably slow progress, although he has been hampered by injuries.
At inside linebacker, Lawrence Timmons’ running-mate Ryan Shazier had an up-and-down rookie season, as injuries and issues stacking-and-shedding blocks on the interior hindered his playmaking abilities. I’ve been vocal about saying Shazier was miscast by the organization as a 3-4 inside linebacker when his most effective position is in a 4-3 defense, but Butler will need to find the Ohio State product’s best utilization in the Steelers defense. The Shazier’s athleticism is great enough to make an impact from multiple spots on the field, but it is up to Butler and inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky to figure out how he can make consistent noise in the lineup.
The defensive line has undergone a facelift in recent years, and now Butler and defensive line coach John Mitchell will attempt to develop a host of young talent, including rookie L.T. Walton and second-year players Daniel McCullers and Stephon Tuitt. The leadership of Heyward will certainly help this unit, but getting steady play from Pittsburgh’s other two defensive line spots will be pivotal to the team’s success in 2015.
The secondary is where perhaps the most work must be done, as defensive backs coach Carnell Lake has an extensive amount of youth heading his way this summer. Shamarko Thomas could be stepping into a starting role for the first time in his three-year career, and rookie seventh-rounder Gerod Holliman will also be looking to make an impact on a team in need of safety depth moving forward. At the cornerback position rookies Senquez Golson and Doran Grant will likely be asked to play a sizable role out of the gate, especially if Allen can’t bounce back from an atrocious season last fall.
Additionally inexperienced players like Antwon Blake, Jordan Zumwalt, Anthony Chickillo, and Shawn Lemon loom behind the extensive number of young players not only trying to make the team, but play a pivotal roles in the franchise’s 2015 defensive plans. Clearly that puts a lot of pressure on Butler, especially considering the win-now position the rest of the team’s roster is in.
The Steelers first-year coordinator has been groomed for this spot by one of the all-time greats for years however. With head coach Mike Tomlin drawing from his defensive roots and a host of top-notch position coaches, the organization is in good hands to develop the infusion of youth they’ve acquired over the past several years.
Still, the watchful eyes will be all over Butler and the young Steelers defense over the offseason, waiting to see if the unit can be returned to its former glory in the hands of Lebeau’s successor. If such changes can be made, the results could be quite plentiful for a Steelers roster that appears poised for big things in the coming years.