After so many years as defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Dick LeBeau and the organization parted way this offseason, in part to make room for the promotion of linebackers coach Keith Butler, whose contract was up after patiently waiting his turn for a number of seasons already.
But the fact that the defense had been underperforming for a handful of seasons now and the apparent desire of head coach Mike Tomlin to make some adjustments to the defensive philosophy also played a role in carrying us from one regime to the next, no matter how slight the actual changes might prove to be.
Tomlin, for instance, has certainly put an emphasis on getting takeaways, and that shows in what the team has done in the draft—the veteran head coach’s first draft without LeBeau’s input, it might be worth pointing out.
Another aspect of the defense that appears to be seeing increased emphasis this offseason under Butler is the necessity for individual players to perform their tasks and win their one-on-one battles, and to that end, is seems that the coaching staff is thrusting them into the position in which just that is necessary.
We have heard inklings of this for some time now in varying degrees of vagary. The truth is, in fact, that it was even talked about a bit under LeBeau last season that he wanted to see, for example, the defensive ends press the edges more in the pass rush, rather than concerning themselves with opening lanes.
But defensive end Cameron Heyward, who faced his first full season in the starting lineup last season and produced a team-high 7.5 sacks, recently summed up the changes in philosophy fairly succinctly, as quoted by Jeremy Fowler of ESPN.
“I think this year we’re going to have a lot more guys to the ball”, he said, “where you have the defensive linemen not just holding up guys, but where we have to make the play as well”. Obviously, the defensive linemen have always made plays, but they were doing so within the process of carrying out the task of occupying blockers to free their playmaking linebackers behind them.
This year, according to Heyward, Butler told his line, “I want the linebackers to fend for themselves. I expect you guys to make plays for yourself”. He summed it up by saying that “we are going to play some one-on-one situations where we have to win”, adding that “we expect” to win those battles.
It is an interesting, if slight, philosophical shift, in which the component parts of the defense will evidently function with greater autonomy, rather than as a whole, with a mandate to go out and make plays.
Perhaps it is, at least in part, a byproduct of the available evidence that the Steelers may not have the capacity to be a statistically elite defense. But in today’s NFL, it may well be enough to be an opportunistic defense that occasionally demoralizes and intimidates its opponents, even if it doesn’t stifle them on the stats sheet.