One of the most unusual aspects regarding the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense is the mystery and ambiguity with regards to who is actually running the show. While it has been well-established that head coach Mike Tomlin became more involved—arguably radically more involved—with the day-to-day details of the unit once they moved on from Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator, it has never actually been concretely established through sourced reporting that Tomlin was actually running the defense over Keith Butler, who took over for LeBeau in the coordinator role.
According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, however, it was the case during Sunday’s loss to the Cleveland Browns that Tomlin was, in fact, calling “all the defensive signals” against the Cleveland Browns. He also asserts that this has been the case for “most of the season, if not longer”.
There are many head coaches around the league who retain play-calling responsibilities for either the offensive or defensive unit, even if they nominally have a coordinator for that role, though sometimes there isn’t even a coordinator. The Browns, for example, have Alex Van Pelt at offensive coordinator, but Kevin Stefanski calls the plays. Mike Vrabel runs the defense of the Tennessee Titans.
The Steelers, however, have long had a dedicated offensive and defensive coordinator and have entrusted in them the responsibility of navigating the gameday minutiae involved in executing the game plan that was collectively assembled over the course of the week.
Of course, it is every head coach’s prerogative to interject here and there and let it be known that they will be running this play or that play, and Tomlin has certainly done that. He, like all head coaches, routinely makes executive decisions—and of course is often second-guessed in the process.
For whatever it’s worth, I reviewed the broadcast of the Steelers’ defensive plays in the first half, and while I did not observe any dead giveaways, I did see Tomlin with a sheet in his hands, and him glancing down a time or two when he was visible. I also saw Butler with his hands in his pockets.
According to Aditi Kinkhabwala, “the contracts of almost the entire defensive staff are up”, she wrote in a Tweet yesterday. She also claims that Tomlin has called the defense “since the tail end of Dick LeBeau’s tenure”, but that appears to be a rather suspicious claim, and there have certainly been times when it was clearly obvious that Butler was calling plays.
#Steelers have a lot of free agent players as well as coaches. The contracts of almost the entire defensive staff are up. (Don’t forget: This is Mike Tomlin’s defense. It’s of his design and he’s called it since the tail end of Dick LeBeau’s tenure.)
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) January 11, 2021
I have never fully bought the claims that Tomlin has been calling the defense as the primary coordinator for years on end, because all such reports have come with nary a bit of evidence. And broadcast footage indicated otherwise (e.g., that Butler was communicating plays from a call sheet to the defense). I didn’t find any immediately obvious evidence in a brief review that Butler was doing that at all on Sunday, however.