Bye Week Rethink: Taking Stock Of Keith Butler’s Defense

Today is Sunday, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are not playing. They are not playing tomorrow, either, nor did they already play on Thursday. The 6-4 franchise is entering its long awaited and much needed bye week after 10 straight games.

With not much else going on, it would figure to be a good time to reflect on what we have seen over the past three months. Specifically, I would like to explore a few topics this week that the team might want to use this time to reconsider.

Now that the Steelers have finally had their bye week—the last among a group of four teams to get their week off after 10 straight games—I’m sure that the coaching staff spend a good amount of time reflecting back on how the team has performed thus far in a variety of areas.

Such a tool would figure to be especially relevant for the defensive side of the ball, as the Steelers have been breaking in the ‘new’ defense of first-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who succeeded Dick LeBeau this offseason after serving as the team’s linebackers coach for the previous decade-plus.

While there were perhaps no major philosophical or schematic changes that the longtime heir apparent has brought to the job, there have certainly been a number of tweaks evident on the field, whether or not they last. With the opportunity to pause, it would be a fair time for the coaching staff to evaluate how various elements of the defense have performed.

The outside linebacker rotation, for example, which has been a relatively new concept for the Steelers and their 3-4 defense, which has typically had two stalwart outside linebackers who commanded nearly every snap. The team has used a steady rotation of four players all year, in large part because they lack those stalwarts they once had.

Under the watchful eye of former defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, the defense has also broadened its horizons in coverage, incorporating more Cover 2 principals to provide variety from their standard Cover 1 and Cover 3 looks. Now would be the time to take stock of how these new incorporations, and the variety as a whole, have worked out thus far.

Under Butler, the Steelers have also amped up their blitzing once again—which is admittedly partly responsible for the amount of passing yardage the team has given up—and the results have been a five-year high in sacks, posting 28 through 10 games, on pace for 45.

That would be the most by a wide margin since the 2010 season, so obviously the increased number of blitzes, and the variety of blitzes, have been effective at least in raising the number of sacks, as has the increased opportunities for the defensive line to one-gap.

The Steelers have also utilized one-gap principles in the run game in order to defend against the outside zone, which has been a problem for the team over the course of the last several seasons. The team currently boasts a top 10 rush defense by statistics, including in terms of yards per carry, an improvement from last year.

All of these adjustments, and others, have helped to tell the story of a surprising defensive unit that has performed above expectations when it comes to the scoreboard. But there is always an opportunity for improvement, especially with a first-year coordinator implementing new tweaks to an old, tried and true system.

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