The Pittsburgh Steelers are entering a critical season in their history in many respects. They have an offensive roster that has all the potential in the world to begin rewriting the team’s record books when it comes to points scored, yards gained, and other such fun facts.
They are also entering the critical second season on defense under the regime of defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who while new to the position, is far from new to the team, or to the players that he is coaching, as he was entrenched as the team’s linebackers coach for many years before his promotion last offseason.
Butler’s first season at the helm was in many ways very successful, as the defense showed dramatic improvement in three critical areas: points allowed, sacks produced, and turnovers. The Steelers allowed 23 points per game in 2014, and cut that down to 19.9, the 11th-best mark in the NFL.
Their sack production skyrocketed from 33 in 2014 to 48 in 2015, the third-best in the league. They had just 11 interceptions two years ago, increasing that total to 16 last year. And they recovered three more fumbles, a 13-to-10 ratio. Overall, they added 11 turnovers for a total of 29, among the better totals in the league.
Of course, there were still many areas lagging. While the run defense also improved, and the pass defense per pass was slightly better, the unit as a whole allowed for far too many passing attempts, facing 625 passes last year versus only 543 the year prior. That resulted in them allowing, cumulatively, the third-most passing yardage in the league.
One of the reasons that they faced so many more opportunities is because they allowed for more third-down opportunities. They allowed 71 conversions on 189 attempts in 2014, a conversion percentage of 37.6. Last year, they allowed 90 of 225 attempts to be converted, an even 40 percent.
So what will be different this year under Butler? According to defensive leader Cameron Heyward, not much. Missi Matthews asked the sixth-year veteran what, if anything, he see being different this year under Butler, responding, responding that the unit will be “building” off of what they did the year before.
He also added crucially, however, that one factor will be different, and that will be the level of comfort that players have in the system, and that Butler has with his team in his new role. That comfort and familiarity should breed even better results.
“Coming into a role where you’re now defensive coordinator”, Heyward said about the former linebackers coach, “it’s a lot to adjust to. But now it’s time to build on it. I think we’ve grown throughout the year, we’ve played more confident”.
Heyward also added that Butler “is able to communicate better with guys” and that “it means more to the defense if you continue to do that”. That is certainly a point worth noting when you consider that Butler spent his coaching career largely isolated on one position group. Now he has to think more globally and consider the assignment of three different levels of players and how they all must mesh together. It’s a learning process, but everybody appears to be more comfortable with that process in year two.