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Steelers offseason additions and losses say a lot about the future of the defense

These aren’t Dick LeBeau and Keith Butler’s players anymore.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Nick Cammett/Diamond Images via Getty Images

In order to show how the Steelers defense is evolving now, we have to first step back in time a little less than a decade to look at the previous defensive coordinator, Keith Butler, and how he built the Steelers roster.

After the 2014 season the Steelers chose not to bring back Dick LeBeau, one of the main reasons being the Steelers in 2013 and 2014 posted some of their worst sack numbers since the NFL merger. They promoted Keith Butler and things would change quickly.

2015 the Steelers drafted Bud Dupree, and for the next two seasons, they averaged 3+ sacks a game when Dupree played, 48 in 2015 when he played all 16 games, and then in 2016, with Dupree injured the Steelers recorded 13 sacks in the first 9 games (1.44 per game) and recorded 25 in the final 7 games when Dupree returned to the lineup (3.57 per game). The Steelers even lost Cameron Heyward for the second half of the season, and the sacks went up.

In 2017 the Steelers added T.J. Watt to the mix. That season, before the injury to Ryan Shazier, the Steelers had a top five defense, ranking 5th in scoring defense, second in passing defense, second in sacks. That defense was built around the Steelers three hyper-athletic linebackers, listed below with their Relative Athletic Score (10 is the highest possible score).

Ryan Shazier: 9.88
Bud Dupree: 9.47
T.J. Watt: 9.92

We all saw the Steelers in late 2017 and in 2018 when they didn’t have a high-end athlete at inside linebacker, Keith Butler’s defense didn’t work the same. In 2019 the Steelers drafted Devin Bush and his 9.33 RAS score.

If we add in safeties you can look at the 2016 selection of Sean Davis (9.77 RAS) and the 2018 pick of Terrell Edmunds (9.86 RAS) and see just how focused on having elite athletes behind his defensive line Keith Butler was.

From 2014 to 2019 the Steelers selected an elite athlete at linebacker 4 times in the first round. The other two drafts saw elite athlete safeties taken in the first round (2018) and second round (2016).

You may be thinking, well duh, every NFL team wants athletes. Most of the best players in the NFL are high end athletes even compared to their peers, but the Steelers weren’t looking for the high-end athletes, they were looking for the elite of the elite athletes, get the top of the class athletes and hope they can play football kind of players.

Keith Butler’s defense was built off a bruising, penetrating defensive line and ridiculous athletes surrounding that line to capitalize on the chaos the line created. It worked too, the Steelers over Butler’s tenure dominated the league in sacks, with the exception of the 9-game stretch when he didn’t have an elite athlete on the edge.

The problem with Keith Butler’s defense was his coverage schemes were as lackluster as his pass rush schemes were brilliant.

In 2019 the Steelers brought in Teryl Austin to help fix that problem, and the early season loss of Sean Davis leading to one of the worst 6 quarters of pass defense ever seen in the NFL and the loss of Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback opened the door for the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick. It is hard to separate Austin and Fitzpatrick, because the Steelers only played two games with Austin and not Fitzpatrick, and the defensive coverage started changing to look more like Austin’s defense from previous jobs in Week 4, after they determined Fitzpatrick would be their free safety.

The Steelers actually downgraded in athleticism at safety when they went from Sean Davis to Minkah Fitzpatrick and his 8.48 RAS score. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a high-end athlete, Davis and Edmunds were elite athletes, but we can all look at their play on the field and see who the best football player is of the three.

In the 2020 NFL draft the Steelers picked Alex Highsmith in the second round. Highsmith is the second-least athletic linebacker (8.06 RAS) drafted in the Keith Butler era, behind even later round selections like Anthony Chickillo (8.71), Ulysees Gilbert III (8.25), Marcus Allen (8.19), and Travis Feeney (9.32). The only linebacker drafted by the Steelers and Keith Butler with a lower RAS than Alex Highsmith was Tyler Matakevich, the Steelers 7th round pick in 2016.

Alex Highsmith is an important figure in this discussion too, as he recorded only 2 sacks in his rookie season, and entering his second season the Steelers brought in Melvin Ingram (8.86 RAS) to compete for snaps. Highsmith won the job and drove Ingram out of town, but still only recorded 6 sacks despite having a good arsenal of pass-rush moves. Meanwhile the pass rush scheme that was built to feature T.J. Watt saw him tie Michael Strahan’s official sack record for a single season.

With Keith Butler gone in 2022, Highsmith recorded 14 sacks, most of them when T.J. Watt was on the field with him. It will take time to determine how important Butler’s athlete-focused scheme impacted Watt’s numbers, but the film from 2022 shows a less Watt-focused rush and Highsmith dominating in it.

Now let’s move to this offseason. Devin Bush is gone, Terrell Edmunds is gone, the only hold-over from Keith Butler’s elite athlete drafting spree is T.J. Watt, a player who has become far more known for his intelligence and skill than just his raw athleticism.

As Steeler fans see guys like Elandon Roberts (Devin Bush size and a 7.39 RAS) and Damontae Kazee (5’10” and a 1.66 RAS) in line to be starters for the Steelers, it is important to note that this isn’t Keith Butler’s defense anymore, and Teryl Austin has been prioritizing Football IQ and scheme/role fit over size and speed. No more Artie Burns, Justin Layne, Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds. The Steelers are more likely to go for a Damontae Kazee, Cameron Sutton or Patrick Peterson.

The Steelers defense is in transition and Teryl Austin is putting his stamp on the roster. We’ll have to wait and see what kind of success that leads to, but as we continue through Free Agency and approach the NFL Draft, Steeler fans will get a chance to see just how different Austin builds the defense.