The New England Patriots offense had their way with the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night. It was ugly. The Steelers defense opened the game up playing a lot of man-coverage only to have the Patriots offense effectively use rub/pick routes to complete short passes, several of which turned into nice gains. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Steelers defense also gave up a few big plays during the game and several of those were a result of either missed assignments or poor communication, or sometimes both. On Thursday, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler had to answer for all that went wrong Sunday night at Gillette Stadium and his opening remarks said it all.
“Yeah, we gave up 33 points. Does it suck? Yes, it sucks,” Butler said, according to audio on 93.7 The Fan. “All right? We could’ve done a lot better, guys, and it was coaching and playing. We busted some dadgum assignments. We, as coaches, didn’t do a good enough job of getting these guys ready to get the right communication on the field and that’s what caused the busted assignments. And they scored on those busted assignments, you know, three times.
“They got us, they scored touchdowns. We didn’t make them go up by threes. We did at the end of the game. They didn’t do nothing in the red zone and all that stuff, but the plain fact of the matter is that that first game we gotta do a better job, number one of coaching, and number two, of playing.”
Defensive communication has long been an issue for the Steelers and on Thursday Butler was asked if when he sees the amount of it as he did Thursday night if he thinks maybe the defense might be too complicated.
“We always look at that and we always have looked at that, Butler said. “You know, we’re not so smug to think that. We can be too smart as coaches sometimes. We look at that and look at every angle that we can and try to gauge what our guys can handle. And, you know, sometimes we’re right, sometimes we’re wrong. You know what I mean? We’ve gotta be able to communicate and do the things that we ask them to do. Everything draws up on the board real good, but what happens on the field maybe sometimes a little bit different.”
Thursday night against the Patriots, Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt wore the lone communication helmet with the green dot on it and thus was responsible for distributing out the play call to the rest of the defense. Even so, Butler explained on Thursday that signals from the sideline are also used to help facilitate the distribution of the play call to all players on the field.
“We do that anyway,” Butler said regarding signaling in play calls from sideline.” I mean, we try to talk as much as we can, but we still gotta give the signals sometimes. And, you know, as much as we’d like not to do that so nobody can steal them, you still gotta do it because corners in this league have got to see. They’re way the heck out there and you can be screaming your head off in the game and they can’t hear you.”
Butler later went on to describe why signals will likely never be eliminated completely even though a lot of the communication can happen through the player on the field who wears the communication helmet.
“The signal, it’s going to be hard to eliminate signals in the game, because of what people are doing in terms of pacing you, you know hurrying up and all that stuff, Butler said Thursday. “So, you gotta be able to communicate from the sideline to the field. And that was part of our problem, also. That wasn’t just the players, that was us, as coaches. We’ve got to do a better job of communicating from sideline to the field.”
So, what about using wristbands with numbers on them? Could that help solve the Steelers defensive communication woes?
“No, we use them, we use it,” Butler said.
Can those be stolen as well as signals can be?
“Well, not if you change them,” Butler said. “You can steal the numbers all you want to, but if you changed what’s underneath that number, I mean, okay, it’s your guess is as good as mine. So, you know, the game happens too fast for that, I think. Even for offenses. You know, they might know a number that you’re putting up there, or something like that, but if you change it every quarter, or if you change it every halftime, then you know, they’re given the wrong defense, which is, you know, that’s fine with me if they’re going to do it.”
With defensive communication issues seemingly being an every-year problem for the Steelers, and especially in the first few games of every regular season, Butler was asked Thursday if that has a lot to do with not having all of starters on the field much during the preseason and sometimes during training camp because of injuries.
“It’s a lot,” Butler said. “I mean, you’ve got to dadgum practice, you know. I mean practice is important in training camp, As a coach, you’ve gotta weigh the pluses and the minuses in terms of who you put out there and how much you put them out there in training camp just to make sure they can play like a 16 game schedule. A 16-game schedule is a long freaking season, man. I mean, what it does to your body and stuff like that, it’s hard to dadgum, you know, make it through that 16 games and then go to the playoffs. You hope you play 20 games, that’s what you’re hoping. Or 19, if you happen to get a bye weekend the first time in the playoffs and stuff like that.
“So, you know, you gotta do what you gotta do and sometimes those guys, they’re young guys, you know, first and second year, maybe third year, you can’t afford for them to miss time in the communication arena. And that happens. And, you know, does it happen every year? Probably so to a certain extent, but for the most part, we’re going to try to do what we do best and that is to get after people and try to eliminate some of the thinking.”
In addition to having Watt be the quarterback of the defense Sunday night, the Steelers also had an experienced safety on the field the entire game in Kameron Kelly and a rookie inside linebacker in Devin Bush. Kelly started in place of an injured Sean Davis, who hopes to be back Sunday for the Steelers Sunday home game against the Seattle Seahawks. Assuming Davis is able to play Sunday against the Seahawks, does Butler think his presence will help in all areas and especially communication?
“Well, I mean, it helps quite a bit because, even though we played a new defense against these guys [the Patriots], you know Sean has been out there and done that, Butler said Thursday. “He knows what we expect of him. Him and TE [Terrell Edmunds] have played together a lot. To me, what’s big to me is our defense playing together and knowing each other well enough that if something happens, we can make an adjustment. And they know what we’re saying, what the communication is. It’s not dadgum Chinese to them. You know what I mean? When they talk to each other, they know it’s English. They know what the crap is going on. So, that’s what we’re trying to get out of them, and I think we’ll get it.”
As mentioned earlier in this post, the Patriots offense successfully used quite a few underneath crossers complete with rubs and picks throughout the Sunday night game when the Steelers tried to play man against them. I response to a question about Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson not being known as a player that gets rid of the football quickly the way Brady usually doers, Butler’s frustration with the way the Patriots quarterback shredded his man coverages quickly came out, even though he somewhat accepts that picks and rubs are just part of what defensive coordinators need to accept can happen during games against man coverage.
“Brady don’t have to, he’s got everybody picking for him,” Butler said. “So, that’s what they did to us, they picked a little bit and some of it was legal, some of it wasn’t, but you know, hey, that’s part of the game.”
After expressing his frustrations with the use of picks and rubs Sunday night by the Patriots offense, Butler was asked what was illegal about them.
“It’s legal, it’s legal,” Butler said. “It’s legal now to be more than one yard down the field to pick but not supposed to be. But don’t quote me on that, it’ll get me in trouble. That’ll get me a trouble doing that crap. I’m just saying they get away with a lot of stuff. Which I mean, hey, it’s an offensive game and that’s how we sell tickets, that’s how we all get paid. All of us get paid because of the dadgum, the game. You know what I’m saying? So, the game, they’re gonna make it exciting as possible. They can sell it on TV, which, hey, I’m all for it, man. I mean, that’s been my fricking whole career. So, I’m not going to bitch about it too much. They did a good job with it, we just gotta make sure that we’re aware of it a little bit more. Do a better job of coaching.”
Butler’s last six words of that response could have been used as a response by him to ever question he was asked on Thursday.
Butler and the Steelers defense will now have a chance to prove on Sunday at Heinz Field that what happened Sunday at Gillette Stadium was mostly a result of them playing a great quarterback in Brady and correctable miscommunications sometimes associated with regular season openers, not only in Pittsburgh, but around the entire NFL. That said, the Steelers will face another great quarterback on Sunday in Wilson, and should he also shred the Steelers defense at Heinz Field, there might not be too many more media sessions or Patriot rub routes for Butler to worry about.