The Steelers’ 2015 defense didn’t turn out as many of us expected, and that’s okay. In fact, it was probably the best possible outcome, given the circumstances.
Heading into the 2015 season, the biggest question marks for the Steelers were all on the defensive side of the ball. That makes sense, considering the offense was largely unchanged from a 2014 campaign in which it led the team to the playoffs despite the defense seeming to sabotage things at times.
That season would be the last for former Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau, who seemed to have been in Pittsburgh for roughly a million years until the decision was made to not retain him for another season. He has since moved on to the Tennessee Titans, and was replaced for 2015 by promoting former Linebackers Coach Keith Butler to LeBeau’s old spot. The move was slightly more predictable than the sun rising in the East each morning, given that it had been rumored to happen at the end of about five straight seasons.
Although there were seemingly constant struggles in the secondary, Butler’s first season could easily be called a success in many ways. This, despite the fact that the person most expected to help his squad improve, Cornerback Senquez Golson, never even took the field from the beginning of training camp onward after an off-season shoulder injury derailed his rookie year before it ever left the station. Even with those struggles, the season was hardly a failure.
Call it what you will, but what Butler’s first season as coordinator is not likely to be remembered as in the annals of history is "orthodox."
The promotion seemed to be the perfect confluence of a team that has historically used its linebackers primarily to rush the quarterback and a guy who has coached those very linebackers for more than a decade. And we definitely saw a significant increase in sacks from 2014 to 2015. The breakdown, however, was unexpected.
In 2014, the Steelers’ defense managed a meager 33 sacks. Of those, 22 came from the linebackers, good for 67 percent. In 2015, the linebackers generated 24.5 sacks. A small increase, to be sure, but the team as a whole managed to improve to 47 sacks, leaving the linebackers with 51 percent of the total, down 16 percent from the previous season.
What Butler proved in his first year is that the former linebackers coach and LeBeau disciple is not beholden to an old, proven-but-predictable style of 3-4 defense, despite the fact that no one would have faulted him for doing just that. It would have been perfectly natural. However, he saw the unique talents of the men in his charge — guys like Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, who can absorb double-teams like good, obedient 3-4 defensive linemen, but who are at their best on the other side of the line of scrimmage. He leveraged the diversity of the linebackers, from 38-year-old James Harrison’s flexibility that would make an Olympic gymnast jealous despite his ridiculous brute strength, to Ryan Shazier’s supreme athleticism.
And, even though the secondary was often held together with duct tape and running on a pair of nine-volt batteries, they even managed to do just enough to win 10 games, and almost enough to win several more. We got to see the emergence of second-year Cornerback Ross Cockrell, saw William Gay take two more interceptions back for touchdowns — making it five straight pick-sixes for a man who was thoroughly unwanted in Pittsburgh not all that long ago — and finally found out for certain what the team had in Antwon Blake. If absolutely nothing else positive is drawn from the 2015 secondary, then consider this: at the very least, what was previously unknown became clear as the morning Laurel Highlands sky.
In the end, Butler largely made us forget the grumbling over LeBeau’s unexpected departure. In his first year as the team’s defensive coordinator, the most important thing for Butler to do was to put his own stamp on a defense that many argued had grown stale under LeBeau — and, if we’re honest with ourselves, that’s probably an accurate hypothesis. It’s pretty much impossible to argue with the results: an increase of nearly one sack per game, and an average of nearly two turnovers forced each contest. It wasn’t entirely pretty, thanks to continuously shaky play from many in the secondary throughout the season, but even in that regard it can be viewed as a huge win and a major coup, even if the latter part was accidental.
The post-training camp addition of Cockrell proved to be a moment of good serendipity, and helped to set the stage for a team that has used man coverage sparingly since the departure of Ike Taylor to enable them to a diverse set of coverages, masking intentions and further opening up a retooled and reimagined playbook. The emergence of Tuitt as a comparably dominant bookend to Heyward wasn’t a surprise, but it did help remind us of the Aaron Smith/Brett Keisel heyday.
In 2016, Butler has the chance to build on his early success. Considering the chatter of the players in his charge, it sounds as if they are drinking his brand of Black & Gold Kool-Aid. He has new tools in the toolbox this year, with the first three picks of the 2016 draft all being used to bring in defensive weapons who could contribute from the outset, as well as a healthy Golson finally ready to make his way in the NFL. If a few more stars align, Butler’s reimagining of the Steelers’ defense could be the bump needed to shove an already potent offense over the hump, into the Land of Lombardi once more.