Regardless of who may be responsible, the inevitable conclusion has to be that the Pittsburgh Steelers have had among the best defenses in the NFL in recent years. They have, for example, been historically good at getting after the quarterback, posting 50-plus sacks for three straight seasons. They have also finished first or second in takeaways in the past two years.
Inevitably, the nominal defensive coordinator is going to receive credit or blame based on what his unit is doing. And Pro Football Focus recently ranked Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler as the third-best defensive play-caller in the NFL going into the upcoming season, Eric Eager writing:
The Steelers tied for second in the NFL in yards per play allowed while generating pressure and knocking down the quarterback both at a rate roughly four percentage points higher than any other defense in 2020. This was despite the fact that Bud Dupree and Devin Bush were injured for much of the season.
The Steelers were the NFL’s best team in terms of limiting positive expected points added plays, and they stayed among the league’s top units despite a turnover rate that decreased by roughly one-third from their absurd 2019 season to 2020.
This is not the first time that PFF has gotten on-board with Butler’s dadgum style of defensive play-calling. They also ranked him as one of the top four defensive play-callers heading into the 2020 season, and three of the four repeat on the seven-man list posted this year, with only Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots falling out of favor.
Of course, Butler and his responsibility are a thorny issue in the Steelers’ fan base. For one thing, different people choose to believe different things regarding just how much power he has over the defense. Some insist that Mike Tomlin has been running the show for some years now. There was one report that Tomlin called the entire postseason game last year, though that was never corroborated by a second source.
The other factor is that, well, he certainly has his flaws. One of our least favorite things is his tendency to put too much coverage responsibility on his linebackers, even having them stacked up against wide receivers without a set adjustment to put the unit in a better matchup.
Butler is entering his seventh season as defensive coordinator for the Steelers after being promoted following a dozen years as linebackers coach, approaching two decades with the organization. At 65 years old, he is now taking the remainder of his tenure on a year-to-year basis.
Having blue-chip players like T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Devin Bush, and Cameron Heyward, however, probably do a lot to keep him young—and also make him look good. I don’t suspect we will see a Dick LeBeau situation, where he opts to coach somewhere else after parting ways with the Steelers.