As Keith Butler continues to prepare his defense for the first time in the role of defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he has found that while the nucleus of that defense core should remain intact, there are also some things that he has been eager to try out for some time.
And with his contract coming up after last season, he told ESPN, he was ready to put those ideas into action, telling the Steelers that he was ready to lead a defense—the implication that it might be in Pittsburgh, or it might not.
Later that offseason, the Steelers parted ways with longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau, but Butler maintains that he had not spoken with Mike Tomlin about the position until after LeBeau resigned.
In spite of the fact that he knew he was ready to lead, the veteran linebackers coach had mixed feelings about succeeding the innovator of the zone blitz system, largely because they had such a strong relationship between them, which was forged over the last decade-plus of working together.
Butler told ESPN that that first phone call with LeBeau after taking over the coordinator position was difficult—probably even awkward—because of how the dynamics of the relationship had changed. The Steelers’ new defensive coordinator seemed to imply fighting off the feeling of stabbing him in the back, even if both parties knew that wasn’t the case, and LeBeau told him as much, saying, “that’s football”.
While the opportunity he has now in front of him is something that has driven him for many years, Butler does recognize that it will be a process to learn the job somewhat on the fly, and he knows that it would be good to have LeBeau in his corner to advise him, which is obviously not practical.
He says that Tomlin has been active in collaborating with him on the new defensive principles while avoiding micromanagement, of which he is obviously appreciative, but the truth is that he has the great luxury of having a veteran and tightly-woven staff of position coaches that are available to help execute his vision.
He acknowledges that he is still on a learning curve, and has to routinely heed Tomlin’s word of advice, when the head coach told him to just “call the next defense”, as Mike Prisuta recounts.
As Butler transitions from one job title to another, so too is the defense he’s preparing to lead into battle, with a number of young players stepping up to fill key roles at all three levels of the defense. Slowly but surely, the apprentice is becoming the master of his own vision on the Steelers’ defense.
Not that he’s ungrateful for the lessons that LeBeau has taught him in the decade plus that Butler worked under him as the linebackers coach. Nor has he valued their friendship any less, even if recent events have created an awkward dynamic. But that should pass in time for the two long-time golf partners. “Hopefully after a year or so we can go back to start playing golf together again”, he said.