When Keith Butler took over for Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of his primary goals was fixing the pass-rush, which had sunk to a middling or bottom level in the league. There were several seasons in a row in which they couldn’t top 35 sacks in a season.
For much of his time since then, Butler has been forced to piece together a pass rush with a heavy dose of blitzes, but in general, it has worked, as they have consistently been near the top in sacks over the course of the past three years.
But his project has always been to reestablish the dominance of the straight four-man rush. In their current iteration, predominantly coming out of the nickel defense, they would ideally include Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Bud Dupree, and T.J. Watt, their starting defensive ends and outside linebackers.
This group of rushers accounts for 20 of the Steelers’ 38 sacks on the season to date, and that includes a game missed apiece between Dupree and Watt, and about five games sidelined for Tuitt. While the latter has just two sacks on the season, he has had two taken away by off-ball penalties from his teammates.
While this group has improved, and generally been effective, however, Butler knows that it still needs to improve. “It’s been up and down throughout the year”, he said yesterday, when coordinators are made available for comment.
“There have been games where we blitzed well and got good pressure and there have been games where all of our sacks came off of four-man rushes”, he said. “We need to be able to do well rushing with four. We still have a little bit to do, I think. We’re not the best in the league. We’re not far from it but we’re not the best in the league”.
The Steelers’ second-leading sacker on the team is inside linebacker Vince Williams, with six, so that does speak to the extent to which they have created pressure through blitzing. Last season, they tried hard during the first half of the year to create pressure with four rushers, but had to abandon it by ramping up the blitzing in the second half of the year, and it produced results.
In spite of his quest to create a dominant four-man rush, Butler is not for a second entertaining a switch to a 4-3 defense. “The ability to have a 3-4 defense as your base defense and take your outside linebackers and make them defensive ends in that four-man front gives you the ability to do a lot of different things,” he said.
“Whether it’s blitz, a five-man rush, a four-man rush and playing zone behind it or man behind it, there’s a lot more stuff you can do in terms of being versatile. I think we have a chance to get better. If we get better, I think we’ll be pretty good”.