The changes made to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense under defensive coordinator Keith Butler have been a double-edged sword. The longtime linebackers coach has actively worked to simplify the language and concepts used under his predecessor, Dick LeBeau, enabling younger players to become contributors at earlier points of their career.
This has allowed the team to field its most talented defense, but it has also come along with unfinished products that lack the fundamentals and chemistry that builds cohesive units. While it has been important for players such as Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Artie Burns, and Bud Dupree to get on the field quickly, and enter starting roles even in their rookie season, they have brought with them in their playing time the primary mistakes that are being talked about.
Young players who are not asked to contribute immediately have the opportunity to spend a greater amount of time honing their craft at a fundamental level. They have the time to gradually learn the defense and gain a complete understanding of what not only they are asked to do, but what the whole unit is looking to achieve.
And so I believe it is simply part of the process of fielding a team with a great deal of young contributors, especially on the defensive side of the ball, that you sacrifice fundamentals and cohesiveness in exchange for talent, with the negatives slowly being offset over time.
Tackling is one thing. You can only do so much to teach your players fundamental tackling. Ultimately, they will go out and do things their own way. I only wish young players would take a moment like New Orleans Saints rookie Marcus Williams’ from the Minnesota Vikings game as an eye opener about the importance of fundamentals like ‘see what you hit’.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward, the captain of the unit, bore a good deal of the responsibility for the defense’s miscues this season after the year for them came to a bitter end. “We all have to get better from this”, he told reporters. “It falls a lot on me, being the defensive leader. We have to grow”.
Of course, Heyward the player is the least of their worries. He is arguably the most reliable tackler on the defense and was their most productive pass-rusher to boot. His chase-down tackles and eternal hustle are an infectious, energy-bringing aspect to the team.
But he has been barking lessons through media exchanges all season that have seemingly not gotten through. He and other defensive leaders have consistently talked about proper communication and trusting one another without trying to do too much on their own, but these have remained a problem.
A large part of the equation, I believe, is simply players maturing and coming to trust and understand the entire defensive product. T.J. Watt, I’m hoping, is something of an exception who knows this coming in. Perhaps he will even grow into a leadership position early on into his career.