Film Room: How Butler Keeps Rewarding His Inside Linebackers With Sacks

Are you an inside linebacker looking to increase your sack numbers? Tired of doing all the dirty work and not getting rewarded with any opportunities to rush the quarterback? If you answered yes to any of the following questions, please give Keith Butler a call as Pittsburgh might be the place for you.

I imagine that is how the recruitment phase goes every spring when the Pittsburgh Steelers are searching for inside linebackers. Pittsburgh has been a great place for inside linebackers when it comes to getting after the quarterback. Mark Barron is learning that this season as he is reaping the rewards playing under Butler’s scheme. Barron notched his third sack of the season last Sunday, tying a career high.

He is not the first linebacker to hit a career high in Pittsburgh as Butler has been able to consistently put his linebackers in key positions to disrupt the pocket. Let’s take a look at how the Steelers’ defensive coordinator has been able to do so.

Now Barron is not going to fool anyone with his pass rushing skills but thanks to Butler’s pass rush schemes, he has been able to find open lanes to the quarterback. The Steelers rush five here and the Cardinals have six blockers, including the running back. Advantage goes to the Cardinals, right? Not so fast.

The easiest way to win when outnumbered is by utilizing stunts and Butler has been a master at this since he became defensive coordinator. Watch how T.J. Watt clogs up both the right tackle and right guard, giving Barron an uncontested rush off the right end. Since Kenyan Drake steps up, the Cardinals have five offensive linemen occupying four rushers but no one picks up Barron who is the fifth rusher, giving him an easy sack.

Here is another example from a few weeks back and while this one is not a stunt, it is a perfectly disguised pass rush with perfect execution from Barron. The Bengals motion a receiver to the slot and it looks as if the Steelers’ linebacker is going to be in coverage. As a result, the Bengals do not account for him in pass protection and Barron makes them pay as he times his rush perfectly and is again unaccounted for off the right edge. Another great chess move from Butler as the Steelers manage to get a free rusher despite them sending five and the Bengals’ blocking with five.

Barron was not the only inside linebacker who caused some chaos in the pocket on Sunday as Devin Bush created some pressure as well. It is very similar to Barron’s sack as Watt once again plugs up inside, clogging up two offensive linemen, leaving an opportunity for Bush to loop around him and get in Kyler Murray’s face. The rookie linebacker does not get a sack but he causes Murray to scramble and throw this one away.

It would be unjust to talk about inside linebackers and sacks without mentioning Vince Williams who has been the Steelers’ best blitzing inside linebacker for a long while. Williams and Butler have been a match made in heaven as the inside linebacker has recorded 14.5 sacks since 2017. Below is the best example from this season that showcases just what the linebacker and coach duo have been able to do together.

Williams is lined up right over the right tackle and right guard on the play above. An early guess says that the right guard should pick him up but this is Butler’s defense and the one rule about Butler’s defense is that you should always expect the unexpected. Williams does not charge straight ahead, instead he loops all the way over into the B gap between the left guard and left tackle. The Ravens are fooled and it is already too late by the time they notice as Williams has already broken into the pocket. A few seconds later, Lamar Jackson is sacked and it is all due to a great stunt design.

Butler’s track history when it comes to his inside linebackers speaks for itself. Williams set a career high in sacks for him in 2017, Jon Bostic did the same in 2018 and now Barron has just tied his career high in sacks with three more games left to play. Since taking over as defensive coordinator in 2015, Butler has been able to get a consistent contribution in the sack department from his inside linebackers.

Number of Sacks By A Steelers ILB (Percentage of Team’s Sack Total):

2015: 10 (20.8%)

2016: 8 (21.1%)

2017: 10 (17.9%)

2018: 8 (15.4%)

2019: 6 (12.5%)

The sack totals have stayed rather consistent but the sack percentage has fallen a bit since 2017 but there is a reason for that. Watt and Bud Dupree have developed substantially and they are simply getting to the quarterback quicker than anyone on the field. When this team lacked true pass rushers, Butler was able to scheme up ways to get pressure using his inside linebackers. Now that he has two-star pass rushers, his life has been a lot easier but still the likes of Barron, Bush and Williams are stepping up when needed.

That was evident on Sunday and has been throughout Butler’s tenure. If there is one aspect of his coaching ability that can not be taken from him, it is the fact that Butler sure knows how to design a pass rush that gets everyone involved.

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