The Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebackers are having their best season in years. The best since Keith Butler was the linebackers coach, before he was promoted to defensive coordinator, taking over Dick LeBeau’s post. And, as it just so happens, Butler is working with the outside linebackers again this year after the team elected not to renew Joey Porter’s contract.
Coincidence? More or less, if you ask Butler. Speaking to reporters yesterday, following a game in which his starters accounted for three and a half sacks—really, probably should have been a straight four—he didn’t take any credit for their own talent and performance.
Asked what he’s done to coach them differently this year that has yielded such positive results, he said, “I don’t know, it isn’t me. It is always good football players”. He added, “I have never seen a (good) coach that didn’t coach good football players. Most of those guys, I have been fortunate since I’ve been here to have the guys that I have had”.
He was, of course, the linebackers coach during the heyday of the James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley tandem. They were one of the primary catalysts of the 2008 Super Bowl run, and were the most dominant pair of edge defenders in the league in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Now he has T.J. Watt, a Pro Bowler in his third season, and Bud Dupree, in year five and having his best season to date. They have combined for 13 and a half sacks, on pace to finish the year with 27 just between the two of them if they can match their first-half production over the next eight games.
“They want to be good and they want to have a good football team and they want to have a good defense, they want to go to the Super Bowl”, Butler said. “I always tell them I am not preparing them for the Pro Bowl, I am preparing them for the Super Bowl and the Pro Bowl comes with it. All this stuff comes with it”.
Prior to Watt making the Pro Bowl in 2018, the last outside linebacker the Steelers sent to the Pro Bowl was Harrison when he last went in 2011. He had made the Pro Bowl every year between 2007 and 2011, but never returned afterward. He was also an All-Pro from 2007 to 2010. Watt has yet to reach that stature.
Between the two of them, they have also been taking the ball away, combining for five forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, and an interception. That is another thing that Harrison and Woodley did that the Steelers’ edge defenders had not in recent years. It’s important that we see that element return as the pass rush picks up the pace as well.