My favorite thing about Keith Butler during his time as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebackers coach was the fact that he always said what was on his mind and in a straightforward manner. I sense that he tried to curb his openness during his first couple of seasons as the defensive coordinator, but I’m noticing him being more revealing this offseason.
I think that is reflected in comments that he made to the media during training camp late last week. He talked about the importance of young players stepping up to the plate for the defense in order for them to succeed, and he named five players specifically by name.
“There are about four, five guys on our defense that have to stand up”, he told Mike Prisuta. “I wouldn’t say that about them if I didn’t think they were capable. It’s a matter of them just doing it. According to the veteran beat writer, the players named were Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Bud Dupree, Vince Williams, and Stephon Tuitt.
2. Keith Butler: “There are about four, five guys on our defense that have to stand up.” He mentioned Stephon Tuitt, Sean Davis, Artie Burns, Bud Dupree and Vince Williams. “I wouldn’t say that about them if I didn’t think they were capable. It’s a matter of them just doing it.”
— Mike Prisuta (@DVEMike) July 28, 2018
I suppose it’s a matter of opinion, but the last name to me is the most interesting. While Tuitt is coming off a frustrating injury-plagued season in which he played hurt for all but two snaps, he already has seasons of quality play under his belt, and the Steelers rewarded him with a contract representing that.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to step up his game, however. That contract wasn’t for what he’d already done but for what was expected of him going forward. Injuries forced him to stumble out of the gate, but there’s no reason that he should be playing like Cameron Heyward this year.
As for Williams, he is the most veteran of the group but also the newest in terms of manning a starting role. Entering his sixth season, he has only been a full-time starter since 2017. He flashed, particularly as a blitzer, but can certainly still get better.
The other three players have long been spoken of in this way. Burns and Davis, a pair of second-year starting defensive backs, were expected to take a big jump forward last season, but while there were strides—and setbacks—that clear and marked advancement didn’t show up.
And Dupree has had three seasons to make that advancement, last year watching rookie T.J. Watt surpass him as the team’s top player at the position. Both he and the team are hoping that moving him to the other side of the defense will be an asset in allowing him to be a more effective player.
It’s critical for all five of these players to be better than they were last year. Perhaps the only players that doesn’t need to be said about among the starting defense are Heyward and Mike Hilton. But these are the potential long-term core starters, the nucleus of what is supposed to be the next great defense. If they fail, the defense fails, setting them back years from where they could have been.