Shortly after announcing his retirement, Keith Butler announced something that’s been widely speculated for a long time. Mike Tomlin handled much of the defensive playcalling while Butler served as the DC, making Butler more of a figurehead than an actual playcaller.
Butler spoke with the PPG’s Gerry Dulac, who tweeted out a couple nuggets of info of their conversation.
Keith Butler on Tomlin calling the defensive signals since he became DC: “I would have liked to do them myself, sure I would. I think everybody would. But Mike’s the head coach. He can do what he wants to do.”
— Gerry Dulac (@gerrydulac) January 22, 2022
“I would have liked to do them myself, sure I would,” he told Dulac. “I think everybody would. But Mike’s the head coach. He can do what he wants to do.”
That knowledge has been danced around for sometime now. Now, Butler is confirming it. Based on Dulac’s tweet, we don’t know if Tomlin called all the plays and if that began as soon as Butler was hired in 2015, though the wording of the tweet implies it.
It’s been rumored and speculated Tomlin called a bulk of the plays but not all of them, jumping in during key moments of the game.
There’s no question Tomlin’s influence on the defense has grown in large ways since Dick LeBeau’s retirement. Tomlin kept LeBeau on staff for the first seven years of his career despite the two having different football philosophies, LeBeau’s Zone Blitz versus Tomlin’s/Dungy Cover 2 background.
It’s also a big reason why the Steelers are likely to hire their next DC internally as opposed to a flashy, outside name who would want to call the plays and control the defense. The most likely internal option is Teryl Austin, a former DC who may not love that lack of control. But he’s been working under Tomlin for several years now and understands how the dynamic would work. It’s also possible, though less likely, the team chooses another internal candidate who would be more comfortable not calling the plays. One name would be defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who has never been a DC before but has said in the past it’s one of his coaching goals.
The Steelers’ defense was an elite unit in 2019 and 2020 before struggling in 2021 thanks to injuries, roster turnover, and underwhelming play.