When the Pittsburgh Steelers defense first took the field to start the 2015 regular season, there were still many questions being asked, not about how the unit would perform, but simply how it would look, and the manner in which it would be run regarding scheme and personality.
New defensive coordinator Keith Butler was not hesitant to tease a myriad of different looks and concepts on the defensive side of the ball throughout the preseason, certainly giving the Patriots plenty of tape to study, but perhaps the most surprising thing that they saw was just how much it looked like that preseason footage.
By that I mean that Butler’s defense was not hesitant to substitute his personnel throughout the game, at times simply as part of a rotation, on other occasions relative to the game circumstances, as was the case on the goal line defense, which we also saw last season.
In all, the Steelers had 23 defensive players on the 46-man active roster, and 20 of them saw playing time on defense. The only three defenders that did not see a snap on the defensive side of the ball throughout the night were inside linebacker Sean Spence, safety Ross Ventrone, and cornerback Brandon Boykin.
That there was movement along the defensive line is not surprising, of course. If there is one defensive position that is regularly rotated, it is along the defensive line. Both reserves, Cam Thomas and Daniel McCullers, received their ratio of snaps during the night. I believe nose tackle Steve McLendon may have even seen some time at defensive end.
It was already known that Butler had every intention entering this season of rotating his outside linebackers, both because he had four of them that he wanted to play, and because it gave him an opportunity to keep the edge rush fresh late in the game. Reserves James Harrison and rookie Bud Dupree both saw a healthy number of snaps relative to the starters.
Both Vince Williams and Terence Garvin participated in the Steelers’ goal line defense, on which they use four defensive linemen and six linebackers, although we saw how this turned out, with Garvin beaten for the Patriots’ fourth and final touchdown of the night from the one-yard line after he was flexed out wide against an All-Pro tight end.
The biggest surprise came in the secondary, with Antwon Blake and Will Allen starting over Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas. Cortez Allen, of course, was the nickel back, and saw a healthy number of snaps as a result.
Thomas also got playing time, as did Robert Golden, who has been primarily a special teams player throughout his three years thus far in Pittsburgh.
While everybody was curious about how the Steelers would run their defense schematically under Butler once the snaps being played actually counted for something, it turned out that the biggest surprise on the night was not the how, but the whom.
Of course, the team also had a number of communications problems, so if this is how the defense will be run, then it must be cleaned up going forward.