The Steelers are in the playoffs, and yet I’m hearing people talk about the Steelers coaches being fired. Which is funny to me from the start.
Many people out there calling for the coaches to be fired because of this embarrassing season looked at this team before the season and joined the talking heads and NFL “experts” in predicting this team to finish last in the division, have very little chance to avoid a losing season, and in general be terrible.
That team that was supposed to be bad then suffered a bunch of key injuries and finished 9-7-1 and made the playoffs. That’s pretty good for a team in a rebuild year.
But let’s go beyond that, because we are here to talk specifically about the defense, because that’s what Keith Butler coaches.
Keith Butler isn’t a typical Defensive Coordinator anymore
Keith Butler was hired to be the Steelers linebackers coach in 2003, one year before Dick LeBeau re-joined the staff. Bill Cowher brought him on board, and while his overall body of work led to the hire, a big reason was Keith Butler’s Memphis Tigers beat Peyton Manning’s Tennessee Volunteers 21-17 in 1996, despite being 26-point underdogs. Butler switched up the Memphis defense, going to a 3-4 and zone blitzing heavily, and it worked, throwing the star QB off his game and giving Memphis a chance to win. It makes sense why Bill Cowher would want that guy on the team.
Butler seemed like a guy who was in training to be a defensive coordinator from the start, but as Dick LeBeau continued to field great defenses Butler was forced to wait. When the Steelers sack totals fell from 48 in 2010 to 33 in 2014, and the defensive ranking fell from #1 to below average, the Steelers made the move to put Butler in charge in 2015. Since that move, the Steelers rank #1 in the NFL in sacks. Butler’s specialty is the pass rush, and it shows. But he was rightly criticized for his vanilla coverages.
That would all change after the Steelers fired Joey Porter following the 2018 season, and Keith Butler added outside linebacker coach to his job title.
I’ll mention here that Bud Dupree recorded 19.5 sacks in 74 games with Joey Porter as his coach, then recorded 19.5 sacks in 27 games with Keith Butler doing double duty as coordinator and outside linebackers coach.
It is also important that in 2019 when Butler took on the OLB coaching duties, the Steelers added Terryl Austin to the staff who had been a defensive coordinator for 6 seasons before joining the Steelers as senior defensive assistant/secondary coach. We’ve also heard a lot about how Mike Tomlin is the primary play-caller for the Steelers defense.
So the first part of my argument is that people need to understand the defense isn’t Keith Butler, it is a group effort of Keith Butler, Terryl Austin and Mike Tomlin. That group has worked pretty well, too. With a top 5 defense in 2019 and a top 3 defense in 2020, they had a great start. Of course, 2021 the Steelers rank in the bottom third of the NFL in defense, but we’ll get to that shortly.
Terryl Austin was a secondary coach before he became a defensive coordinator, and his strength as a coordinator was his coverage schemes and getting good play out of his defensive backs, his front line play and pass rush scheme wasn’t so hot.
Essentially the Steelers took their defensive coordinator and his fantastic pass rush schemes and added a coverage scheme specialist to handle that side, with Mike Tomlin helping them put it all together. If you look at the Steelers passing defense from 2015-2018, and from 2019-2021, I think you can see that it was a great move. That move also freed up Butler to focus on his outside linebackers more, and that has paid off with Bud Dupree’s last two seasons with the Steelers and T.J. Watt taking his game to even higher levels.
Keith Butler isn’t a great defensive coordinator, but he is one of the best pass rush coordinators of all time, and a fantastic outside linebackers coach. The Steelers have found a way to let him coach to his strengths and not have to worry about his major weaknesses.
The Steelers pass rush under Keith Butler is one of the best all-time
The Steelers have pulled off twelve 50 sack seasons in their history, Keith Butler has been a coach on the team for 6 of them, and in his 8 seasons as defensive coordinator he has 5 50+ sack seasons. Of course he had T.J. Watt in those seasons, but the Steelers with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley only pulled off 50 sacks once. The Steel Curtain also only pulled it off once. Even if you pro-rate a 14 game season (and round down to be nice) counting 43 sacks in a 14 game season, the Steel Curtain only adds one more, for two 50+ sack seasons.
Bill Cowher’s Steelers pulled off 50+ sacks 3 times, in 1994, 1996 and 2002. Chuck Noll pulled it off 3 times, 1974, 1975 (pro-rated), and 1983. Keith Butler’s Steelers have done it 5 straight years.
Teams that have recorded 50+ sacks in five straight seasons:
Average of 10 teams a season hit 50+ sacks from 1984-1986, and the Eagles, Giants, Raiders, and 49ers all missed this list by one season in the mid 1980s.
Outside of the sack-happy mid 80’s, only the 1966-1970 Rams have reached that level of consistent pass rush. Since 1988, only three times have other teams pulled off 50+ sack seasons in three consecutive years, the 1991-1993 Saints, the 1998-2000 Rams, and the 2019-2021 Rams.
Only the Steelers have pulled off more than three in a row since 1988. And in the last 20 years, only the Carolina Panthers have pulled off more than three 50+ sack seasons total. The Steelers have seven, six of those with Keith Butler on the staff, five with him as defensive coordinator.
When I say Keith Butler is one of the best pass rush coordinators of all time, It’s not a hot take, the numbers back it up.
I also want to add that while T.J. Watt has been a Steeler for those last 5 seasons, if you drop the number to 48 sacks (3 sacks a game), you still only have the Steelers and Rams with 3 straight 48+ sack seasons, and Keith Butler adds the 2015 season to his list. I’ve talked before about Bud Dupree and the 2016 season, how the Steelers averaged more than 3 sacks a game when he was active for the game, and in 2015 the Steelers averaged 3 a game for the season.
Keith Butler’s defense has been sacking quarterbacks at a historic rate, even before T.J. Watt was drafted. And considering T.J. Watt was considered a reach when the Steelers picked him, maybe Keith Butler’s scheme and coaching has helped Watt become the pass rusher he is. People will frequently criticize Watt’s defensive player of the year bids by citing how infrequently Watt is double teamed, and how few “high-quality” sacks he records. That’s because the scheme sets him up for success and makes it hard for defenses to focus on him.
Watt is a phenomenal player, he’s the NFL MVP as far as I am concerned, but Keith Butler has a role in his success as well. T.J. Watt has benefited from being on a Keith Butler defense, not as much as Butler has benefitted from having T.J. Watt, but it’s not an insignificant amount either.
Yes, 2021 has been pretty bad, but look below the surface
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense isn’t ranked very well in 2021. Injuries are an obvious excuse, with the Steelers missing two of their main three defensive lineman for almost the entire season, and I can easily point to the 0-4-1 record the Steelers have when T.J. Watt misses half the game or more.
But I want to go in a different direction here.
The average score for an NFL team in 2021 was 23 points. The Steelers defense held opponents to 23 or fewer points in nine of their 17 games. That’s the tenth best mark in the NFL, and they are the only team to do that 9 times without losing one of those games.
The Steelers were 8-0-1 when the defense was good, 1-7 when the defense couldn’t hold their opponent to 23 or fewer points.
On the other hand, the Steelers offense scored 23 or fewer points in 12 of the Steelers 17 games. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, Washington Football Team and Houston Texans scored 23 or less more times than the Steelers. Those four teams have a combined 28% win percentage. The Steelers are over .500 and in the playoffs because they have a 6-5-1 record when the offense is average or worse.
While the defense could be better, what this team managed to pull off with all the losses and injuries on this team stands out. When the defense was even remotely healthy they carried the Steelers to wins. When the defense struggled, the Steelers had almost no chance.
A frustrating season (again, this playoff-bound team was supposed to be terrible, how is this a let-down?) brings demands for change, but the Steelers have consistently judged their coaches by more than just the surface appearance of the team’s record and stats. It is very unlikely the Steelers will move on from Keith Butler, and it makes sense why they would keep him around.