Defensive Shortfalls A Chicken-And-Egg Dilemma That Needs To Be Resolved

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a very successful regular season in 2017, posting a 13-3 record, tied for the best of any team in the league. It was one of the best finishes in the team’s history, and the second-best since Ben Roethlisberger has been here, behind only the quarterback’s rookie season, during which they went 15-1.

But it was also pretty close to as bad as it gets when it comes to what ultimately matters, which is the postseason. While they were good enough in the regular season to earn themselves a week off, sitting out the Wildcard Round, they lost 45-42—scoring a touchdown with one second left—to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Pittsburgh in the Divisional Round.

It seemed such an incongruous conclusion to the season that we had been watching to that point, yet once the clock hit zero, it was time for the reality to set in. That’s all she wrote. It’s now time to start signing players to Reserve/Future contracts as four other teams march on toward the Super Bowl.

Lots of blame has been assigned—that is universally true, including after blowout victories, to be frank—but the most substantial criticism in the aftermath of the game has been for defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who has been with the organization for about a decade and a half and has been in his current post for three seasons.

Unfortunately, quite a bit of the criticisms of his unit are justified. My problem is attempting to determine how much of it is on him and how much of it is simply problems that exist elsewhere, or outside of his control.

Now, it’s a bit hard to say this after giving up 45 points—seven of which came from the Jaguars’ defense, another seven of which came with an interception that set up the Jaguars’ offense in the red zone—but the Steelers’ defense was statistically pretty good for the season, particularly the pass defense.

The sacks were up, as was the overall pressure. Yet it wasn’t there on Sunday. The turnovers were there, though not in bunches, and yet, again, it was absent on Sunday. The third-down defense had been solid, yet was poor on Sunday. The red zone defense completely faltered, but that has been a problem all year.

The two mainstay issues have been communication problems and poor tackling. The Steelers’ defense during their championship years in the mid- to late-2000 period were built around these very two things. Really, it is what all great defenses are founded upon.

Know what you’re doing, know what your teammates are doing, trust that they are going to do it, and then make the play by getting the guy with the ball on the ground. This is the essence of playing defense, but there have been far too many issues in this department.

It has been a pretty consistent problem throughout Butler’s tenure, but it also predates him, extending into the final years of Dick LeBeau’s defenses. So it’s not just the coach, but also simply the performance of the players. But the bottom line is that something has got to give. And Alex Kozora will be giving his two cents in a short while.

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