The Steelers defense has been steadily slipping down the rankings. A once mighty unit finished a pitiful 25th in the NFL in sacks for 2013 and had only 20 turnovers, 18 less than the Super Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks.
The defense has rightfully come under fire for it's poor performance, and a significant amount of the criticism has been levelled at the Steelers linebacking corps. Largely responsible for making the "splash plays" in Dick LeBeau's legendary defense, the linebackers haven't lived up to the expectations set upon them by a fan base use to it's fair share of All Pro's and DPOY candidates at the position.
There is of course myriad reasons for the drop in performance. The defense was still adjusting to the loss of James Farrior and James Harrison, and LaMarr Woodley couldn't stay on the field. Larry Foote went down in the first game of the season, and replacing him was a 6th round linebacker named Vince Williams. On top of that, the Steelers had to play another rookie, this one a first rounder, and a relatively untested Jason Worilds.
Not a recipe for success.
However 2014 is another year, and one brimming with potential for the Steelers linebacker corps, but potential must eventually translate to production.
Linebackers coach Keith Butler is aware of the intense pressure on his unit, both from fans and the media, and per Steelers.com there are two things his linebackers must continue to develop, an appreciation of scheme and an appreciation of teammates.
"What happens is everybody in the media says, ‘You’re not a splash player. You’re not making splash plays.’ What the heck is a splash play? It’s the play that you should make within the framework of the defense" said Butler.
"So everybody starts trying to push and do things outside the framework of the defense and they screw the whole freakin’ defense up instead of just doing their job. When they start learning to trust the guy next to them to do his job and the guy on the other side who is doing his job and I do my job and I understand all that, then I make plays come to me. And if they don’t you should be patient enough for them to come to you because sooner or later they will...they’re all in the process of learning that."
For years, the Steelers defense crafted a reputation for being opportunistic in the extreme. They had 11 talented players on the field operating within Dick LeBeau's system, and they had a penchant for making plays when required. For Butler, LeBeau's scheme is still the best in the league.
"This system is a hard thing to learn, but I’ve always said this to all my guys, ‘I wish I played in this system.’ Once you learn this system, to me, there’s not a better or a more fun system to play in.
"You can be aggressive and you can blitz and you can change up the things that you’re doing. There are a lot of different things that you can do and put pressure on offenses. But in order to do that you got to get them in situations that you can control."
It always comes back to controlling the situation for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Always the same mantra, stop the run and the big play. Everything else will come in time.
"The thing that gets you beat defensively is mental mistakes," Butler said. "Somebody makes a mental mistake here, a mental mistake there, and then they add up on you and it ends up in too many big plays. The thing we have to try to eliminate at the linebacker position is any type of mental mistake."
"...if we’re giving up big runs all the time, we’re not going to get in that situation [a situation you can control]. If we eliminate that we can get up on people then we can cause turnovers, we can get sacks and do the things we need to do to win."
Of course only time will tell, but this linebacking corps could be truly special if Keith Butler has his way.