Rank Keith Butler as among the most open and honest coaches when it comes to media interviews. And now that he’s recently retired coach Keith Butler, he’s as honest and blunt as ever. He joined 93.7 The Fan for a great interview Monday, one well worth your time, and was asked the biggest reason for the Steelers’ defensive struggles in 2021.
An old-school, stop-the-run linebacker himself, Butler cited poor run defense due to injuries to key starters up front.
“I think the biggest thing that we probably didn’t do a good job of was stop the run,” he told Andrew Fillipponi and Aditi Kinkhabwala. “We lost a couple of very valuable players…I will say losing Stephon Tuitt and [Tyson Alualu] really hurt us in terms of stopping the run. And really we’ve really been pretty good at stopping run a long time. This year was probably our worst year. We might have been the worst in the league of stopping the run.”
The Steelers were, in fact, the league’s worst rush defense, allowing 4.99 yards per carry this season. Not only was Pittsburgh in the NFL’s basement, it was a historically bad number for the franchise. It broke a nearly 70-year mark of highest YPC allowed and blew the doors off the previous high of 4.71 set in 1954. Here’s how it ranks in franchise history. It isn’t pretty.
Pittsburgh allowed four teams to run for 200+ yards this season and across the board, put up numbers that haven’t been associated with the Steelers since the pre-Noll era. As Butler said, the Steelers have always has a great or at least average run defense. Not 2021.
Stephon Tuitt didn’t play a snap this year and his future with the team remains in doubt. Tyson Alualu was lost five quarters into the year due to a fractured ankle, leaving the team to have a revolving door f players try to fill his shoes. It wasn’t until they signed Montravius Adams late in the season that the position had calmed down but even then, things were far from perfect. Instead of trusted, known veterans, the team relied on a mix of young players to get the job done, guys like Henry Mondeaux, Isaiah Buggs, and even practice squaders like Daniel Archibong.
Though elite quarterback play litters the NFL today, the AFC North is a run-heavy division. And stopping it is critical. To their credit, Pittsburgh’s rare successes this year came against known foes like the Ravens and Browns but still, they simply were not good enough against the ground game. Butler suggested the team’s aggressive mentality has something to do with that.
“Our defensive line was good in terms of sacks. You look at sacks, that’s fine. But a lot of times when you get sacks, you get up the field too much and you open up holes, bigger holes to run through. So that hurts a little bit too.”
Pittsburgh’s defensive line combined for 20 of the team’s 55 sacks this season. While Butler’s comment has merit, the team has gotten pass rush pressure in the past while still playing steady run defense. In 2019, they were an elite run defense while the d-line group racked up 17.5 combined sacks. It was the injury and loss of talent and experience that doomed the Steelers and have a domino effect on the rest of the group.
With Alualu returning, young guys like Isaiahh Loudermilk growing, and the possible return of Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers’ run defense is in a good place to bounce back in 2022.