PITTSBURGH -- I respectfully must disagree with John Phillips contention that it was time for Dick LeBeau and the Pittsburgh Steelers to part ways.
Sure, LeBeau has had his detractors over the years, especially the last few as the Steelers defense has sagged, but rarely have any of his players or media members who have dealt with him on a regular basis over the years felt this way. The Steelers defensive coordinator is that engaging.
It's easy to see why his players want to run through a wall for him, but it's not his fault that they are unable to stay healthy or play consistent defense, let alone run through anything resembling an NFL quarterback. It's also not his fault that the Steelers have not adequately replaced the veterans they have jettisoned in recent years and are about to do the same to this year.
I'm not going to say that LeBeau has forgotten more about coaching defenses than anyone who could replace him as the Steelers defensive coordinator, because this guy is as sharp as he ever was. As anyone 40-plus-years-old or more can attest, let alone someone approaching 78 such as LeBeau is, remembering what one had for breakfast is tough enough.
Anyway, you get my point. Let's move on. LeBeau is gone, that's a fact. So, where do the Steelers go from here? It's unlikely that anyone other than Keith Butler will get the job, since the Steelers have paid him more money in recent years to stay for just this situation. Butler has believed to have several chances to move on, but the Steelers reportedly told him the job was his when LeBeau was gone. He probably didn't want it this way, but he isn't likely to turn it down.
That said, I do agree with John Phillips that the Steelers should at least interview other candidates. First, the Rooney Rule likely keeps them from just promoting Butler. Second, why not see who's out there and who else would be interested? And third, it can't hurt to tap into a few other defensive minds to see what they think about the Steelers defense of the future.
But if Butler takes over, as expected, are the Steelers really starting fresh here? Presumably, Butler will utilize the same defensive philosophies that LeBeau did for all those years. Sure, he likely has a few new ideas, but it's unlikely that there will be any drastic changes, such as going to a four-three defensive scheme. It could happen in the future, but not now.
The Steelers personnel would need to change drastically for that to happen, so it likely would only occur over time. While we're on the topic, let's talk personnel. Signings and other decisions need to be made, but a solid core is in place at each position.
Up front, the Steelers have a superstar in Cam Heyward, the league just hasn't acknowledged him as such. And in rookie Stephon Tuitt, they have an emerging star. Tuitt came on strong at the end of the season and can only get better. In the middle, Steve McLendon must play better. Staying healthy could facilitate that. Rookie Dan McCullers could get more playing time, and Cam Thomas is a capable backup. Brett Keisel, the only one not under contract, had a debilitating injury for a D-lineman and isn't likely to return at any price.
At linebacker, the Steelers are set on the inside with Lawrence Timmons -- in his prime and playing his best football -- Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence and Vince Williams set to take their games to another level. Jordan Zumwalt, highly thought of but on injured reserve last year, is an unknown. The only outside linebacker under contract is Jarvis Jones. If he can stay healthy, Jones should make an impact this season.
James Harrison could return for one more season, but that might depend on whether the Steelers can re-sign Jason Worilds. They might just tag him again if they can't sign him to a long-term contract. Arthur Moats signed a one-year deal and likely would return for the veteran minimum. If he and Worilds are under contract, Harrison probably would not return.
The secondary has more players under contract than any other position with safeties Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone inked for at least another year. Polamalu's return is still in question, but it likely will be his call. Many believe he will hang it up to await the call from Canton. Will Allen could be had at the veteran's minimum, but he'll be 33 this year and could be on his way out.
At cornerback, Cortez Allen, William Gay and B.W. Webb are under contract. Ike Taylor won't be back, even at the veteran minimum. He'll likely retire as a member of the Steelers. Brice McCain and Antwon Blake, starters by the end of the season, will be re-signed at minimum cost. Surely, the Steelers will select a cornerback higher in the draft than the fourth round this year, but that's a story for another day.
And, anyway, that would be a primary concern for the Steelers new defensive coordinator, whomever that is.