While it’s now been a few days since Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter essentially said that rookie T.J. Watt and third-year player Bud Dupree will more than likely be the team’s Week 1 starters and that veteran James Harrison would basically be used as a relief pitcher for the two, it’s still a big topic of discussion as the team prepares to practice on Thursday.
Early Thursday morning, it was time for Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler to be asked about what Porter said about the team’s potential outside linebacker rotation plan for the upcoming season during an interview on Steelers Nation Radio and more importantly, if he is in line with it.
“I’m in line with Mike Tomlin,” Butler said prior to laughing.
After being told that was a smart answer, Butler expounded on his thoughts on what Porter said a few days ago.
“Those two guys [Watt and Dupree] have played well and done a good job and Joey is optimistic about them and stuff like that,” Butler started. “We all have a voice in who plays and when they play and stuff like that. Mike takes into consideration what Joey says and what I say and he makes the decision. Whatever he says is the decision and for the most part, we’ll see what happens as it goes down that road.”
As for Butler’s thoughts on Harrison, who said Wednesday that he’s willing to play whatever roll in 2017 he’s ultimately asked to play, the Steelers defensive coordinator made it clear that he’s not ready to throw the 39-year-old out with the bath water just yet.
“I’m not ever ready to eliminate Deebo [Harrison], but there comes a point in time when you’ve got to replace and we’re not looking to replace him right now,” Butler said. “We’re looking for him to be a big part of our team. So, we’ll see what happens as it goes down the line.”
While Butler’s thoughts on Harrison are pretty clear, it still doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been overly impressed with what he’s seen out of Watt so far as the team prepares for the second preseason game.
“That young man has worked at it hard,” Butler said of Watt. “He’s kept his mouth shut. His brother [J.J. Watt] has probably told him to do some of the things that he’s done and he’s deserving of the number-one draft choice. And the guys around him see that and his teammates will learn to respect him if he keeps making plays and doing what he’s supposed to do within the framework of the defense, which he is doing. And so, we’re mighty glad to see him do it.”
One thing that stuck out the most about Watt in the preseason opener, outside of him being in prime football shape and registering his first two NFL sacks, is the fact that he was used some as an off-the-ball linebacker during the game as part of a 4-3 over front. That’s certainly something that Watt figures to be better suited for than Harrison for obvious reasons. In short, it provides the Steelers the opportunity to play a 3-4 or 4-3 look whenever Watt is on the field.
The Steelers still have several weeks before ultimately needing to decide who will play where and when at outside linebacker in 2017, but with that said, Watt will likely be hard to keep off the field come the start of the regular season if he continues to progress like he has since he was drafted. In short, Porter’s rotation plan that he laid out a few days ago might just wind up being what ultimately happens.
Regardless of what ultimately happens at outside linebacker, it’s clear that Tomlin will have the final say and that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.