The Pittsburgh Steelers‘ defense has shown significant improvement in each of Keith Butler‘s three seasons as defensive coordinator, but there are many areas to improve in come September. As we know, head coach Mike Tomlin also has a significant say when it comes to the defense. Butler and Tomlin have a task ahead of them this offseason to address a number of issues.
The Steelers’ defense seemed to lack an identity. Some games they stuffed the run, but ultimately allowed about 106 rushing yards per game. Their pass defense was good, but lapses in communication and poor coverages allowed multiple big plays for opposing offenses. They were middle of the pack in the league with a turnover margin of +2.
The closest thing to an identity was the ability to sack the quarterback. With that said, there were times when the pass rush didn’t come alive until the second half of games. Butler and Tomlin need to have a serious conversation about what they want this defense’s identity to be.
Tackling was a tough task for the Steelers this season. We saw this throughout their 17 games. The Steelers averaged 11.17 misses per game. Giving any NFL team extra yards is going to hurt a defense. Missing tackles is going to happen, but the key is limiting the misses. It is hard to teach how to tackle at this level, but the idea of sound, wrap-up tackling has to be an emphasis this offseason.
I mentioned the lapses of communication above and boy was that an issue, especially without Ryan Shazier working as the defense’s quarterback late in the year. Receivers and running backs were left wide open in the flat in zone coverage because of poor communication between linebackers and corners. The defense players on the field often seemed as if they were unsure of their teammates’ assignments. This constantly led to confusion which resulted in big plays for offenses. Communication has been a problem since Butler became the defensive coordinator and in needs to improve in 2018.
There were too many times this season when a defensive penalty killed the Steelers’ momentum. The one that remains stuck in my head is Artie Burns getting called for defensive pass interference against the New England Patriots in week 15. It occurred with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter on a 3rd down and 3. The Pats went on to kick a field goal on this drive and well, you know the rest. This is a prime example, but not the only one. Being offsides nine times and committing seven pass interference penalties for a total of 118 yards is unacceptable. The defensive discipline must be better.
The defense, of course, was effective enough to help the Steelers to a 13-4 record. Nickel blitz packages for Mike Hilton were designed very well, third down defense was exceptional and leading the league in sacks was a pivotal piece contributing to the Steelers’ success. There are ways to improve, however, and take this young defense to the next level.