Much has been talked about the variety of changes coming to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense as they transitioned this year away from Dick LeBeau and to new defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who was of course the team’s linebackers coach for over a decade.
One of the most interesting tweaks, which figures to stay in place for now, is the fact that Butler and outside linebackers coach Joey Porter have been consistently using a four-man rotation at the key pass-rushing spot all throughout the season.
Utilizing former first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones and free agent picket Arthur Moats as the ‘starters’, those two regularly give way to veteran James Harrison and rookie first-rounder Bud Dupree.
As it so happens, the latter two have often gotten more snaps than the starters have, but all of their snap counts have been roughly even. Rookie Anthony Chickillo even got into the rotation on Sunday with Harrison out.
According to Porter, it’s more important now than it was in the past to keep the outside linebackers fresh, because they are asked to rush the passer more in this era. He told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—in the reporter’s words—that “all the passing downs today call for more liberal substitutions in the prime pass-rushing positions of outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense”.
Bouchette relays that Porter believes “it’s easier to play the run for an outside linebacker than constantly try to beat the offensive tackle on a pass rush 50 times a game”:
If you think you’re getting a fresh rush when a guy’s rushing 50 times and you’re getting his best rush, you’re not. I mean, your energy is going to go down, you’re going to do a rush that has no juice on it. Instead of you being out there with a rush with no juice on it, put a fresh guy in there, you can go back in, just get your energy back.
Porter polices the outside linebackers and pulls them out when he thinks it’s time, though it is not an exact science—especially when Harrison waves off his substitution. “I just try to roll them and keep them fresh but if they’re hot, sometimes I keep them out there longer”, he said.
The former Steelers Pro Bowler is most keenly interesting in monitoring the level of energy of his outside linebackers, noting, “when you have a 9-10-play drive…I don’t know how good your pass rush is going to be on that 11th play, so if you look like you’re tired, I’m going to send another fresh body in”.
It is interesting to note that Porter pulled Chickillo from his second defensive series after 10 snaps, replacing him with Jones. It has been a common sight for the Steelers to flip pass rushers in the middle of excessively long drives such as those.
On the season, the outside linebacker group as a whole has produced 10 sacks in 10 games, which is certainly far from exceptional, but has been good enough, considering the talent level, within the context of the whole defense, which is on pace for about 45 sacks, its most by far in the past five seasons.
What might it look like next year? Will Harrison still be on the team? Will Dupree, or even Jones, demand to be an every-down player? Will the four-man rotation stay? That remains to be seen.