Many of life’s decisions are like tearing off a Band-aid — you know it’s going to hurt, so better do it quickly and get it over with than draw out the pain. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been faced with a couple of these decisions over the past few seasons but, so far, have shown an inability to commit to meaningful change.
The Steelers’ organization has famously been resistant to change, and I’m not referring to the form of currency jingling around in your pocket. How else do you explain only three head coaches in nearly fifty years? They’ve sustained a culture of excellence during the last half-century by adhering to an unwavering set of values and ideals. No knee-jerk reactions for this franchise. First they try to identify the problem, then attempt to address it accordingly.
But the Steelers need to realize that not all change is bad. It isn’t a sign of weakness or surrender. The unavoidable truth is that change often is a necessity for improvement. The Steelers’ quest this season for a 7th Lombardi Trophy will hinge on decisions made recently concerning coordinators on both sides of the ball. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and defensive coordinator Keith Butler were both promoted from within the organization in an effort to achieve continuity, but that’s where the similarities end. While Fichtner’s promotion feels like a natural progression in the offense’s continued evolution, Butler’s ascension still feels more like the team trying to fulfill an obligation.
The offense never reached its prolific potential last season, which made the Steelers’ decision to part ways with former OC Todd Haley an easy one after his contract ran out at season’s end. Fichtner had already developed a strong relationship with Big Ben from his time as quarterbacks coach, and the Steelers were only aiming to tweak the offense — not needing any general overhaul.
So far, so good with this decision. The offense has looked sharp throughout training camp and during the majority of both preseason games. Steelers Nation is understandably psyched out of their minds to see Ben Roethlisberger at the helm of an offense tailored to his liking and under his control. With a little luck and relatively good health, this offense should be a championship-caliber unit. No major changes on offense are expected but, truthfully, none is warranted.
The defensive side of the ball is another matter entirely. First let me say that the Steelers’ loyalty to Keith Butler is mutual and admirable. Butler has been a valuable contributor to the coaching staff going on 15 years. The first 11 years as linebackers coach, then the last three as defensive coordinator after replacing the legendary Dick LeBeau. Butler was considered the heir-apparent to replace LeBeau for years and the Steelers seemed committed to promoting Butler whenever the ageless wonder LeBeau decided to hang up the whistle and clipboard.
The problem was that LeBeau didn’t get the memo — he wasn’t going anywhere. To his credit, Butler remained patient and loyal to LeBeau and the Steelers. The Steelers value this type of integrity in their employees.
After a 2014 season during which the defense was labeled as ‘old and slow,’ many thought the game had bypassed LeBeau. He was accused of being too loyal to his veteran players and too slow in developing young talent. Lebeau resigned after the season and Butler was finally promoted to coordinator as promised. The only problem for Lebeau’s longtime protege was that he inherited an aging defense in dire need of an overhaul.
The Steelers were definitely aware of this situation, but what were they supposed to do? Their hands were tied. When they committed to Butler they did so with the mindset that he would seamlessly continue the trend of superior Steelers defenses as a LeBeau disciple. But they also had to be questioning if they even wanted to implement the same defensive concepts. Maybe it would be better to bring in a fresh face with new ideas, but they didn’t have that option. Not without betraying core values they hold dear.
The results have been a mixed bag of good and bad. Last season, the defense led the league with 56 sacks, a Steelers’ record. They have gotten younger overall and have improved defensive team speed. They’re no longer considered old and slow. But that’s about the extent of the good news.
Quite honestly, this group struggles with run-defense because they can’t tackle. This trait also results in a variety of big plays being given up in the passing game. We keep hearing that it’s a “want-to” issue, but if it’s not rectified soon, it might actually prove to be a talent problem.
To be fair, the defensive inadequacies aren't entirely Butler's fault. There have been multiple misses on high-round defensive draft picks, plus, of course, the devastating injury to Shazier. While not all of the defense's struggles are Butler's fault, they are his responsibilities.
So instead of relieving Coach Butler of his position this offseason, which many felt was warranted after the horrendous post-season performance against Jacksonville, the team brought in a couple of new position coaches and focused on improving the talent level, mainly at the safety position.
Results thus far have been unimpressive to say the least, but we’ve yet to see the complete squad in action, nor have we witnessed a game plan being installed or any new coverage schemes implemented. You don't show your hand during the preseason — you wait until the games really matter.
But the defense still appears to have a glaring hole in the middle and it appears Butler might be forced to pull a rabbit out of his hat to fill it. Hopefully, the Steelers will add a talented player or two after final roster cuts. Good luck and no pressure — just the entire Steelers Nation watching and counting on you to succeed.