With Keith Butler’s retirement official, and with it coming from his own mouth, unlikely to be rescinded within the next week like several other Steeler coaches “retirements”, it is a good time to take stock of what his run as defensive coordinator looked like.
In 2015 when Butler took over for Dick LeBeau there was a significant amount of change on the defensive roster. Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel all retired, they had started a total of 26 seasons combined for the Steelers, all of them on the roster for more than a decade. Joining them in retirement was Jason Worilds, who retired at the age of 27 as he entered free agency. With the loss of CB Bryce McCain, the Steelers lost 4 of their top ten players by snap count, including Worilds who led the defense in time spent on the field.
That draft class saw the use of 6 of the Steelers 8 draft picks on defense, including Bud Dupree and Anthony Chickillo who would actually play for the Steelers for a decent amount of time.
Despite the loss of the last members of the Steelers defensive unit that led the Steelers to great success from 2004-2010 the defense improved from 18th in scoring defense to 11th, and from 26th in sacks to 3rd.
2016 saw the Steelers again invest heavily on defense, selecting Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave with their first three picks. It also saw Bud Dupree miss over half of the regular season, a stretch where Jarvis Jones, 38 yr. old James Harrison, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo led an anemic Steelers pass rush to 13 sacks in 9 games and a 4-5 record. After Dupree’s return the Steelers recorded 25 sacks in 7 games, winning all seven, then adding 8 more sacks in the playoffs for 33 sacks in the final 10 games.
That season also saw Butler’s deepest run in the playoffs as defensive coordinator, but after two playoff games with a combined 34 points allowed the Steelers were soundly defeated by the most notable foil of the Steelers defense, Tom Brady and his Patriots. With all three of their rookies landing in the top ten in snaps played and the Steelers defense landing 10th in points allowed, the outlook was promising for the 2017 season. Especially when the Steelers added Joe Haden in free agency and T.J. Watt in the NFL draft.
Through 12 games the Steelers ranked 5th in scoring defense and 4th in yards allowed. But in that 12th game the Steelers lost Ryan Shazier. In the last 4 games the Steelers allowed the 9th most points and the 12th most yards dropping from a top 5 defense to a bottom tier defense without their star linebacker.
Despite the Steelers inability to recover from the loss of Ryan Shazier, the Steelers led the NFL in sacks in 2017, setting a new Steeler franchise record, passing the 55 sacks the Steelers recorded in 2001.
Similar to the 2017 Steelers, the 2001 Steelers were a top tier defense that struggled when their star linebacker (Kendrell Bell) was injured. The 2001 Steelers defense ranked 3rd in scoring, but fell to 16th in 2002. Likewise the Steelers defense that was top 5 in scoring with Ryan Shazier dropped to 16th in 2018.
Like their 2002 counterparts, the Steelers would have major changes to their defense before getting back to being a top tier defense again. After the disappointing 2018 season, marked by a linebacker group that struggled mightily in coverage the Steelers added Mark Barron, then traded up to get Devin Bush in the draft. The Steelers also brought in corner Steven Nelson and in week 3 of the 2019 season, added Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Another big move was the addition of Senior Defensive Specialist Teryl Austin. the arrival of Austin and the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick were the catalysts of a big change in the Steelers coverage schemes and the results showed, with the Steelers defense ranking 2nd in passing yards allowed, yards per pass attempt, passer rating allowed and interceptions while ranking first in sacks, total yards defense and turnovers over the last 13 games of the season.
The defense would continue to excel in 2020, ranking 3rd in points and yards allowed, while ranking top 3 in most passing defense statistics and leading the league in sacks, tying the 2017 franchise high mark of 56 sacks.
The Butler/Austin fusion was a resounding success, with Keith Butler’s pass rush and Austin’s coverage schemes combined the Steelers were better than any years since the peak of the 2000’s defense. The 2020 Steelers also set a new NFL record for the most consecutive years leading the NFL in sacks with 4. Keith Butler had revitalized the Steelers pass rush in 2015, and once T.J. Watt joined the team in 2017, no team had been better at getting to the quarterback than Keith Butler’s Steelers.
Sadly, this 2021 season would not continue the trend. The reduction in salary cap for the 2021 season forced the Steelers into some tough decisions. Mike Hilton, Steven Nelson and Bud Dupree all left the team for jobs elsewhere. Vince Williams would end up retiring, Stephon Tuitt would miss the entire season on IR and Tyson Alualu would join him after only 57 snaps. With Devin Bush recovering from injury the Steelers run defense dropped from 11th in yards and 13th in yards per attempt to 32nd, last place in both yards and yards per attempt. The passing defense was able to stay inside the top ten in both yards and yards per attempt, and the Steelers led the NFL in sacks for a fifth straight year, but their last place run defense led their fall to 20th in scoring defense for the season.
While Keith Butler’s last season wasn’t a good one for the defense as a whole, his record as one of the NFL’s greatest pass rush coordinators is well established, with the Steelers holding the NFL record for most years leading the NFL in sacks, and an impressive 3.1 sacks per game average for his career as a defensive coordinator (including playoffs).
He also stands out for being the Steelers linebackers coach. Hired in 2003 Butler is credited with being a linebackers coach that James Harrison could work with, coaching him for all but one game of his career with the Steelers. Butler also coached Joey Porter, LaMarr Woodley, Bud Dupree and of course, T.J. Watt.
While his tenure involved some hiccups, most notably the struggles to bounce back from the loss of Ryan Shazier and the injury plagued 2021 season, Butler’s time as a linebackers coach was exemplary and as a defensive coordinator his pass rush is the most dominant the NFL has ever seen, and he led a top ten scoring defense in four of his seven seasons, with two top 5 finishes.
Four top 10 defenses in 7 years lines up pretty well with Dick LeBeau’s 7 top 10 defenses in 13 years as the Steelers defensive coordinator, but while Butler had only two top 5 finishes, all seven years LeBeau’s defenses finished in the top ten they were also top 5, with 4 seasons as the #1 scoring defense in the NFL.
Butler’s defenses never reached the heights of the defenses when Butler was an assistant to Dick LeBeau, but LeBeau is also a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator, one of the best ever to do it. Keith Butler will not be joining Dick LeBeau in Canton, but his record-setting Steelers pass rush will live on in the record books for a long time to come.