Keith Butler is returning as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive coordinator for 2021. But it could be his final season after signing just a one-year contract that puts him again in lame duck status going forward. If and when the Steelers do make a change, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar may finally get his shot.
Some fans may forget who Dunbar even is. But he’s done a tremendous job filling the big shoes left by John Mitchell. Dunbar was hired by the Steelers in 2018 to replace Mitchell, who moved to an assistant/liaison type of role after being the team’s d-line coach for over two decades. Mitchell was a titan of a coach who developed the likes of Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, and Cam Heyward. He had a tough love approach, no doubt partially a result of playing under Bear Bryant at Alabama, but he got results. And players loved him for it.
Dunbar was tasked to replace him. He brought his own wealth of experience to the Steelers. A former 8th round pick of the Steelers in 1990, he got into coaching in 1998 and carved a path back into the NFL. He worked with Mike Tomlin for one season in 2006, Tomlin as the DC, Dunbar the d-line coach. Dunbar then made stops with the Bills and Jets before returning to college, spending two years with Nick Saban at Alabama. Then Pittsburgh came calling.
Dunbar brought a different personality than Mitchell. A lighter, softer touch than Mitchell’s drill sergeant attitude. But Dunbar never lowered expectations and had the same philosophies as the man he was replacing. Work hard, stop the run, chase after the football. And like Mitchell, he’s been able to coach up this group.
Javon Hargrave was drafted by Mitchell but he flourished under Dunbar. In 2018-2019, he combined for 10.5 sacks and played at a Pro Bowl level, parlaying that into a big contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. Stephon Tuitt has had his best years under Dunbar while Tyson Alualu successfully made the transition to nose tackle for 2020 and flourished there. He also helped convince Alualu to stay in Pittsburgh.
But Dunbar isn’t just working with the big guys up front. He’s also been the de facto outside linebacker coach, working with the EDGE rushers since they function like defensive linemen. Pass rushers often lining up with their hand on the ground. After Joey Porter’s departure and with Keith Butler being the defensive coordinator, Dunbar was given the role. As a brief example, here’s a clip of this past training camp, the EDGE rushers and linemen lumped together and Dunbar working with them all.
He helped the light come on for Bud Dupree, turned T.J. Watt into one of the NFL’s fiercest players, and developed Alex Highsmith for a strong rookie season.
Dunbar’s proven he can coach, relate to, and develop players. With his experience and knowledge, he’s deserving of a promotion to coordinator. It’s one title he’s yet to hold in his entire football career but one he said was always his goal.
Even as a hypothetical DC, Mike Tomlin will probably end up running much of the show. His role has certainly increased over the years. But that, and I don’t mean to downplay it, makes Dunbar an even more attractive candidate. Promoting a former DC like Teryl Austin could be trickier because someone like Austin is going to want to have full control over his defense like he did at previous places. It’s easier to balance things out with a first-time DC like Dunbar, just as it’s been for Keith Butler.
In a 2008 coaching clinic I reviewed shortly after his hire, Dunbar spoke about his long-term goals and plans.
“One day I want to be a coordinator, one day I want to be a head coach, but right now, I’m going to be the best defensive line coach I can be. Everything I can learn to help my guys do one thing better, that’s me.”
He’s been the best positional coach he can be. Hopefully he’ll have the chance to finally climb the ladder.