We’re going to talk about two things today. The reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coaching staff. And what I would like to see happen, the latter which certainly has no impact on reality. We’re going to start with reality to get it out of the way and then onto my thoughts of what should happen to Keith Butler in the offseason. Does he stay and get another chance? Or is he canned and the Steelers start anew?
Here’s the reality. Butler is likely to stay. Pittsburgh is built like an ocean liner, not a speedboat. The changes they make are generally gradual. That’s why there’s been three head coaches since the Nixon administration, why even coordinators generally stay for a long time. Todd Haley spending six years here is a lifetime in offensive coordinator years. Dick LeBeau was one of the longest tenured defensive coordinators. And assistants, like Butler before promotion, have spent most of their careers with the Steelers (John Mitchell, James Daniel are two prime examples).
By the sounds of it, pushed again by Ed Bouchette yesterday, if any coordinator goes, it’s going to be Todd Haley. Not for a lack of production on the field, by those merits alone, he would certainly stay, but for a stressful relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. If the Steelers go that direction, and perhaps make some changes along the defensive assistant side (Joey Porter, Carnell Lake, we’ll get to that) and the strong possibility a guy like Richard Mann retiring, they’re not going to also fire Butler. Simply too much turnover for a team regrouping to make another run at a Super Bowl in 2018.
That’s just not how the Steelers operate and you and I – if we’re being honest – know that. Scream, shout, vent it out, but that’s how it’s going to be.
For my perspective, we’re going to evaluate Butler without considering those other factors. On merit alone, we’re not talking about will Butler stay but does he deserve to? Has he done enough in his three years of replacing LeBeau to stay for a fourth?
We’re going to look at it from every angle because that’s the only honest way to go about it. Sugarcoating everything he does or thinking he’s terrible and done nothing for this defense are both hacky. He’s done good, he’s done bad, and if you’re going to talk about firing someone, you better consider both. Or you’re just biased and flying with blinders to get some clicks.
Thinking over if I want Butler fired or think he should stay, I made a list of the good and bad he’s done. And we’re going to talk about both.
Ultimately, like the headline reads, Butler should be given one more year as the Steelers’ defensive coordinator.
We’re going to get into why I believe that, and honestly, I went back and forth several times, but first, let’s look at the pros and cons of what he’s done.
– Creative personnel groupings, matchup/gameplan specific (11 in total this year)
– Problem solver who used skillset of entire roster to overcome injuries and maximize his talent against opposing offenses
– Scraps what doesn’t work, goes back to the drawing board with it, and tweaks it. Doesn’t continue to do what doesn’t work from a schematic standpoint
– Has a distinctly different defense than Dick LeBeau, stepped out of his shadow
– Introduced new blitz concepts, slowly gotten rid of old, sometimes outdated, LeBeau fire zones
– Seems to be well-liked and respected by players
– Simplified scheme when he became DC, allowed rookies to get on the field and make immediate impact, something LeBeau’s system never allowed for, adjusted to changing tides of the league
– Top production in some key areas: 1st in sacks in 2017, 7th in points per game (best since 2012), and red zone defenses have been impressive two of three years
– Had to deal with injury to Ryan Shazier, dramatically shaking up how the defense operates
– Playoff struggles, collapse at the end of this season, one of the worst defeats in recent history
– Consistent communication problems, appeared to worsen over the course of the season, and though acknowledged, never fixed
– Can argue not enough production out of the OLB position and blitz/pressure numbers still aren’t sustainable
– A variation of LeBeau but does this system work effectively enough to win in the postseason?
– One-gap scheme has created more pressure and run stuffs but run stunts have been too cute and allowed for big plays too, Butler will do more than what he should instead of letting players play
– Missed tackles too consistent of a trend during his tenure
– Struggle to determine true identity of a Butler-coached defense
So there’s my list. I’m sure many of you will disagree with that, especially the “pros” list, but I’d ask you to come up with things Butler has done well. If you can’t come up with anything, you aren’t being honest enough in the conversation. He hasn’t been horrible and in at least some areas, there’s been improvement and promise.
For me, keeping Butler boiled down to three things.
1. The scheme is not broken. It isn’t always perfect but Butler has evolved it enough that it’s capable of working
2. Butler’s scheme or use of any one player is not holding them back from maximizing their talent
3. 2017 felt like the first year Butler’s defense was truly “his,” an actual separation from LeBeau, and I want to see how this defense progresses for at least one more season
To be clear, this doesn’t absolve Butler of the many issues going on in this defense. I don’t think many have been harder on Butler than I have. Communication was the primary problem I pointed out before the postseason and, disappointingly, poor communication showed up in the loss to Jacksonville. It’s the elephant in the room and if you’re going to fire Butler, it’s largely for these problems.
I’ve spent many videos talking about the defense’s issues. Here’s one that pins much of it on Butler, one that shows a leaky secondary, and in 2016, a look at their then broken pass rush. When Butler has screwed up, and it’s happened many times, I’ve been the first to point it out. Just want to make it clear – I am no Butler apologist. If you want the dude gone, I get it. Capeesh?
But I don’t wan to conflate problems with an automatic pink slip. Most defenses have problems. The question is if the current scheme is fixable and if the coach is capable of fixing them. I think the answer is yes to both. Ultimately, that’s why I am advocating for him to return.
Again, the biggest issue is communication. Why has it been such a constant problem? That’s a difficult question for any of us on the outside to be able to answer with a high degree of confidence. My belief was to do with the fact this was the first year the defense was truly Butler’s to control, that his stamp was left on it. I think the old-guard was making the transition from what LeBeau did to what Butler is doing. The difference may not look significant but Butler is adding a lot to this defense compared to what we’ve seen in the past. Formation and alignment, personnel groupings, blitz concepts, and coverages, there’s a lot of change. It created stress on the defense and led to mistakes.
That alone doesn’t make it acceptable. But it makes it fixable. And that’s the important part. If it wasn’t fixable, then yeah, Butler’s gotta get the boot. That’s what w’ere judging his status on. Not the past. The future.
Like I said in the second point, is there any one player Butler is holding back? Any one player Butler isn’t putting in a position to succeed? We have certainly seen bad defensive coordinators do that. Jim O’Neil was brutal in Cleveland. Not just for a lack of talent, which sure, he didn’t really have, but for how he compounded the problem by not letting his guys win.
Look at this play. 1st and 10. No deep safety. Cornerback (not a good one) isolated on Antonio Brown in off coverage. Brown easily gets inside leverage on the slant and takes off to the end zone. Corner has no chance. That’s putting your guys in a position to fail. I don’t see it like that with Butler.
Who isn’t in a position to win? Sean Davis? Bud Dupree? I can’t pinpoint a single player. Some guys aren’t hitting their potential but I have trouble putting that at Butler’s feet. Maybe I’m wrong and you can throw out names below but when I see Artie Burns struggle, I don’t think it’s directly tied to being Butler’s fault.
I think another year in what will be fully Butler’s system, to watch it continue to grow, evolve, with whatever Butler has cooking up in his mind. I think he’s been able to take this defense from just a 3-4 vs nickel unit and turn it into a ton of combinations, which is going to allow them to match up better against whatever offenses do well. There was a point in the year when this defense was excellent and despite their fade, they captured magic that still exists.
None of this guarantees success and in 2017, clearly didn’t, but that has me excited. That’s another requirement – you gotta be excited about what’s coming back. If you’re not, then yeah, Butler has to be shown the door.
Should changes be made? Absolutely and you’ll get no argument from me. From a player standpoint, this draft has to again be focused on defense. Free agency too. Free safety inside linebacker, corner depth, another pass rusher, all areas that should be addressed. That’s going to make things look a lot better.
And you have to look at the positional coaches, too. It’s harder for us to examine who of that group is worthy of staying or going because their impact is felt more during the week than it is on gameday. But I think Joey Porter has to get replaced. The production from the OLBs, especially Dupree, just haven’t been good enough and too often, especially down the stretch this year, it faded entirely. Sunday was just another example. Carnell Lake could be considered too though I’m less inclined to dump him than I am Porter.
That will create some clarity in who truly is to blame. The players for not having the technique to execute or the overall scheme.
Mike Tomlin had a couple of rough years. It would’ve been easy to can him after back-to-back .500 seasons with the talent he had. He was kept, of course, and that’s proven to be the right decision (I know some still want him gone, consider that a vocal minority). I want to do the same with Butler.
Last thing on him. I combed through a list of potential replacements for him. There were a couple interesting options, and we’ll talk about those if Butler is actually canned. But none are really slam dunk choices that are going to be an immediate upgrade. I know everyone is shouting Rex Ryan, and it isn’t a bad idea, but when an entire fanbase is shouting one guy’s name, it usually means options are limited.
Other ones out there are less inspiring. John Pagano, Dennis Thurman, Joe Barry were others on my list. Not an All-star lineup.
So there ya go. Obviously, with the loss just 48 hours ago, this is not a popular opinion. And if you want Butler gone, I hear you. There’s a heck of a case to be made. But for me, I’m not there yet. The case isn’t compelling enough. Butler has done plenty of good. And with some more minor changes to this defense, can take it to another level.