Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?
At the head of defensive meetings in Tennessee, apparently. That's where Dick LeBeau passes his time these days, having been given his walking papers by the Steelers following one of the most underwhelming defensive seasons the city of Pittsburgh has seen in decades.
He had a lot of help getting to such a low point. Ike Taylor missed most of the season with a broken arm. Jarvis Jones, the same, with a broken wrist. Then-rookie Ryan Shazier had a fondness for wandering aimlessly around piles he wasn't a part of and found himself injured. Twice.
And Cortez Allen had the worst injury of all: shattered confidence.
But, under head coach Mike Tomlin, it's always been "next man up." Some would say LeBeau did the best with what he had left; others will say the reserves should have been better prepared. But none of that matters, now.
Keith Butler, you are the next man up.
Butler had been rumored for years to be the Steelers' defensive coordinator-in-waiting, so it was no real shock that he was elevated to his current position shortly after LeBeau departed. And the writing had been on the wall for LeBeau, as we've watched his defenses slowly degrade over the last several years. "Not aggressive enough." "Teams have him figured out." "Too predictable." We heard all the possible reasons for the decline.
We only need one reason, though, for the change of coordinator: it was simply time. The defense had stagnated, and Butler's latest contract was up. In Top Gun, Meg Ryan said to Anthony Edwards ("Goose"), "take me to bed or lose me forever." Well, in a barely metaphorical way, that's probably what was going through the minds of Butler and the Rooney family as the off-season got underway. Promote me now or lose me forever.
Just sign here, Mr. Butler.
Despite the debate that still rages -- and will flare up every time the defense performs less than perfectly, for we the people of Steeler Nation are a fickle, demanding bunch -- we will probably need to collectively curb our enthusiasm for a year. Butler is not a miracle man. He's a solid defensive coach who has a learning curve ahead of him, just like any other first-time coordinator. Nevermind the twelve years under LeBeau's tutelage. He has to get his feet wet, and he needs to show the players this is his defense, now. That takes time.
Can he do it? There's little reason to believe he can't. Over the years, he has coached guys like Joey Porter, James Farrior, James Harrison, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Until the last few years, the linebackers have been stellar in Pittsburgh, and the drop-off may be more attributable to some questionable draft picks and bad luck than to anything Butler may or may not have done.
He also has some tremendous assistants now under him. John Mitchell has been the Steelers' defensive line coach since 1994, making 2015 his twenty-second season in that capacity. Mitchell has led some outstanding units of his own, and has the pieces to field a top-tier line in 2015.
Carnell Lake, a former safety and cornerback for the Steelers, leads a young secondary that is the biggest question-mark on the team, let alone the defense. He's a savvy coach and excellent motivator, and his players love him.
And, of course, the position Butler vacated by ascension is now being filled by two coaches, one each for inside linebackers and outside linebackers, both former Steelers players. Jerry Olsavsky takes over the inside after five years in various assistant-coaching roles for the team, and Joey Porter will be in charge of the outside. If anyone can get every last drop out of this group of outside linebackers, it's the fiery and outspoken Porter.
Unless proven otherwise, we have no good reason to doubt Butler will excel in the job. He's been with the team longer than Tomlin has been the head coach, for crying out loud. He has played an integral role in shaping this defense for twelve seasons.
Eight-hundred-pound gorillas sit wherever they want, and LeBeau decided to sit in Tennessee. Butler may only be a 600-pound gorilla.
But he's only just started to grow.