Keith Butler’s Blitz Comments: Do They Make Sense?

It’s become a running theme for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. A year after blitzing about 33% of the time, Keith Butler has toned things down. Way down. He went from AC/DC, going all out aggression, to elevator music.

You, I, your uncle in Shadyside have all talked about. Why aren’t they blitzing more? 

He’s mentioned it several times but on the bye, addressed the question again. From the PPG’s Ray Fittipaldo.

“It’s easy to say blitzing solves your problems, but you still have people in the secondary who have to stand up,” Butler said. “Not that our secondary couldn’t. It’s just that we have a young secondary and we have to try to win football games. We’re doing what we think is best to win football games with the people we got.”

Intuitively, that makes some sense. But if we delve deeper into it, does it hold up? Let’s check it out.

It’s true rookies, Artie Burns and Sean Davis, have played in this Steelers’ secondary. I mean, duh. There’s only been 40 passing snaps all season where neither have been on the field. And of those plays, the Steelers have blitzed on 22.5% – using their standard of five man rushes – of those snaps, a considerable bump up in an albeit smaller sample size.

With both on the field, they’ve blitzed just five times, or 6.9%.

Looking at those numbers alone, Butler’s comment would seem to have merit. Too many rookies on the field and it’s not worth the risk of leaving those guys on islands.

But Davis and Burns have only each been on the field 72 passing plays this season. That’s less than a quarter of all dropbacks by offenses this season. So why isn’t the team blitzing more overall? If both were on the field all the time, that would make a lot of sense. But they’re not. And it’s happened only 11 snaps from the Kansas City Chiefs’ game, Week 4, and on.

From that point, the blitz rate is just slightly higher than the seasonal figure, from a little over 15% to 20.1%. Still way down from last season’s mark.

So still, Butler won’t send much pressure. What gives?

Is the fact just one rookie has been on the field, mostly Burns, especially lately, the driving force behind it? That would be strange. And concerning.

It’s not like the Steelers’ secondary was chalk full of experience last year. Ross Cockrell was signed on September 5th a year ago, someone who never had a regular season snap and missed out on the entirety of the team’s OTAs, minicamp, and all the preseason festivities. A couple weeks in, he was playing, and the Steelers were blitzing.

A lot.

Brandon Boykin was traded for during training camp, thrown onto Mike Tomlin’s “moving train.” It took him a lot longer than Cockrell to crack the lineup, you, uh, probably remember that, but he eventually did, and the Steelers blitzed. Sure, Boykin was a veteran to the league but new to the system and didn’t have any time to sit and learn like players brought in during the offseason are afforded.

To recap: last season, the Steelers had one practically rookie cornerback and one new one and they blitzed more than Dick LeBeau. This season, they have one rookie cornerback and now one sparingly used safety, and they’re more passive than a kitten.

The rest of the secondary is unchanged. William Gay, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden (with more starting experience), and a year-wiser Cockrell.

If you want the actual numbers, not just observations, Butler’s five man pressures have dropped from 33.2% in 2015 to 15.6% this season, a figure that’s been cut by more than half.

And if Burns and/or Davis being on the field by themselves, not with the other, is such a scary thought that Butler will go against his admittedly aggressive, blitz-if-I-have-to nature, then that speaks incredibly poorly for the long-term outlook on either of those players.

This statement is a lot harder to test with objectivity than Tomlin’s comments about the run defense following the New England Patriots’ game. There is no way to truly know what the reason is. But from my view, while the fact the secondary has some youth does play a minor role in the lack of blitzes, especially when both Burns and Davis are on the field, it doesn’t do enough for me to explain it all.

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