Young Steelers defense showing signs of life
Oct. 01, 2015
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Keith Butler didn't exactly dumb things down when he took over for Dick LeBeau Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator last winter.
Maybe streamlined is the better word.
LeBeau's intricate 3-4 scheme was notorious for its ability to flummox young players even as the Hall of Famer spent a decade overseeing the "Steel Curtain 2.0." In a perfect world, Butler admits he'd love to give his young players a couple of years to learn before sending them into the fray.
The Steelers don't have that kind of time. And maybe they don't need it.
Lost in the concern over Ben Roethlisberger's sprained left knee, an injury that leaves one of the league's best offenses in the hands of Michael Vick — yes, that Michael Vick — starting with Thursday night's game against struggling Baltimore (0-3) is that Pittsburgh's revamped defense might be coming along more quickly than expected.
The Steelers (2-1) held St. Louis to six points on the road last Sunday and sacked Colin Kaepernick five times the week before that. And considering what Tom Brady has done in the interim, maybe the opening night 28-21 loss to New England doesn't look so bad in retrospect.
Pittsburgh already has nine sacks through three weeks, putting the Steelers on pace to far surpass the 33 they managed a year ago. Defensive ends Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt — freed by Butler's decision to let them loose rather than just occupy blocks, a pillar of LeBeau's system — are proving durable and dynamic while the linebackers behind them are showing signs of rapid maturity.
"Coach Butz has simplifying the defense down to us and making us play," Tuitt said. "We all have the ability to do tremendous stuff on the football field."
At times, it shows. Pittsburgh shut down St. Louis' running game, prevented Nick Foles from generating any momentum and made a handful of big stops, the most important Will Allen's interception in the final minutes that helped preserve a 12-6 win.
A week earlier Pittsburgh chased Kaepernick all over Heinz Field, with linebacker Ryan Shazier doing a little bit of everything — collecting 15 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery — before leaving with a shoulder injury Bud Dupree became the first Steelers rookie to have sacks in each of his first two games since 2007 when he nabbed Brady and Kaepernick in consecutive weeks.
The sledding figures to get significantly tougher over the next month with games against San Diego, Kansas City, Arizona and Cincinnati to come. And the Steelers will have to do it without Roethlisberger, leaving the margin for error significantly smaller.
That's fine by Tuitt. Last he checked Roethlisberger hasn't taken a snap on defense during his career. While there's an extra sense of urgency with their captain in street clothes and his left knee in an unwieldy brace, the defense's goal remains the same.
"Our job is to keep the points at zero," Tuitt said.
While that may be a little too lofty — Pittsburgh's last shutout was in 2011 — the Steelers seem to be embracing Butler's "less thinking/more doing" philosophy. That doesn't mean Butler won't continue to add wrinkles, but with 11 players on the two-deep chart with four years or fewer in the league, he's going to pace himself.
For now he'll settle for more pressure in the opposing backfield — which is what he's getting — and the rest can wait. He's not going to totally rework something that wasn't completely broken and he's not going to become extra cautious because the Steelers just happen to be missing their all-everything quarterback.
"People don't care what the problem is," Butler said. "They just want you to win. That's what our job is built on. That's the only thing that is important right now. We have to win despite our circumstances."
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