2022 Offseason Questions: How To Evaluate Keith Butler’s Tenure As Defensive Coordinator?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 season is over, already eliminated from the postseason after suffering a 42-21 loss at the hands of Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. They just barely made the postseason with a 9-7-1 record and a little help from their friends.

This is an offseason of major change, with the retirement of Ben Roethlisberger, the possible retirement of general manager Kevin Colbert, and the decisions about the futures of many important players to be made, such as Joe Haden, Stephon Tuitt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and others.

Aside from exploring their options at the quarterback position, the top global priority, once again, figures to be addressing the offensive line, which they did not do quite adequately enough a year ago. Dan Moore Jr. looks like he may have a future as a full-time starter, but Kendrick Green was clearly not ready. Chukwuma Okorafor is heading into free agency, as is Trai Turner.

These are the sorts of topics among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked. There is rarely a concrete answer, but this is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all their uncertainty.

Question: How do you evaluate Keith Butler’s tenure as defensive coordinator?

One of the misnomers about the ‘coordinator’ coaching positions in the NFL is the idea that those titles are synonymous with play-calling responsibilities—not without reason, because they do overlap in the vast majority of cases. There are plenty of examples of coordinators, however, who did not wield the in-game play-calling responsibilities.

Former Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who announced his retirement yesterday, acknowledged the long-held speculation that, for the most part, he was one such coordinator, though not by choice. He told Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he would have liked to have done it, but “Mike [Tomlin]’s the head coach. He can do what he wants to do”.

(Dulac also wrote that Tomlin had already largely begun to take over this role late in Dick LeBeau’s tenure).

I emphasize this point because it’s a pretty key element in evaluating his performance. We have a tendency to want to judge coordinators based on what their units do from play to play, but that’s more difficult when they’re not actually routinely setting up their unit on those plays.

They do design and scheme their unit, however. They collaborate in putting together gameplans and sets of plays and schemes that will be run in the game. They’re just not tasked with specifically calling which will be run in-game at any given time.

Butler took over a failing, aging defensive unit in 2015. By 2017, he had resurrected the defense to a perennial top-100 group. They finished in the top five in yards allowed in three out of four years between 2017-2020 (sixth in the other year), and top 10 in points three times, twice in the top five (the other time 16th) in the same span.

Driven largely by injuries to key players and losses in the offseason, the unit fell to 24th in yards and 20th in points in 2021. His lasting accomplishment will have been to have his team lead the NFL in sacks in five consecutive seasons, in each year with more than 50 sacks. That had never been done before in NFL history.

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