Film Room: Something Borrowed, Something New In Keith Butler’s Defense

Much of our focus with Keith Butler’s defense has been its expected evolution in 2017. Transitioning away from Dick LeBeau’s scheme and incorporating more man coverage, the buzzword we’re all probably too caught up in. It’s important to remind everyone Butler’s defense has – and will continue to be – tethered to LeBeau’s philosophic.

We can look at a concept from 2004 – 13 years ago – and compare it to last season. And they won’t look much different. I rediscovered this play researching a separate article. It was Week 17 of that magical 2004 season, most of the Steelers’ backups playing the game with the #1 seed sewn up. Despite the understudys in the game, Pittsburgh still came away with the victory.

That was aided by James Harrison’s first career touchdown, an 18 yard fumble recovery. Drew Bledsoe was sacked on a cornerback blitz by Ricardo Colclough, one of the few memorable plays of his underwhelming career. Take a look.

The thing is, we don’t have to call it just a cornerback blitz. Or even a zone blitz. We know exactly what it was called and how it’s run. It’s LeBeau’s Storm/Thunder Fire Zone, a blitz scheme Butler still uses today.

We’ve mentioned this concept a lot. But a summer refresher is always a good thing and I like to tie the two eras together. There’s a reason why players who have worked under LeBeau, like Coty Sensabaugh or Daimion Stafford, still say Butler’s defense isn’t that much different.

Let’s break down that Bills’ score.

The Storm/Thunder (same principle, storm out of base, thunder from sub) is a safety/cornerback combination blitz. Still a five man zone pressure with the away side linebacker dropping into a hook zone in coverage. That helps add another defender to take away a coverage window in general but also anticipates the QB throwing hot away from the blitz; ideally, where the outside linebacker will be.

This from LeBeau’s Bengals’ playbook.

Sorta think about Harrison picking off Kurt Warner in the Super Bowl (though he wasn’t supposed to drop), or the history of LeBeau’s zone blitz. The first time he ran it, the QB threw the ball to Bengals’ corner Ken Riley.

From one of my favorite books, Blood, Sweat and Chalk by Tim Layden, who discusses the history of the zone blitz.

“LeBeau happily recalls that first experimental zone blitz. ‘So there was this exhibition game and we just decided to try it. We ran the zone blitz and the quarterback just threw the ball straight to Ken Riley,’ he says at a Steelers training camp practice in the summer of 2009. ‘And I thought, hey, we might have something here.’ He smiles broadly. ‘Turns out we did.'”

Turns out, yeah they did. 

So last season, Butler pulled out the Thunder. First pass of the game against the Indianapolis Colts. Nickel and SS blitz, in this case, William Gay and Sean Davis, with the away side linebacker – Harrison – dropping into his hook zone. And just like Coclough, it’s Gay who gets the sack, forced fumble, and turnover.

Doesn’t look much different from that ’04 clip, no?

Football has changed dramatically in 2004. But in pockets of time, it looks awfully similar.

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