The once vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been in decline. No one disputes this. After setting standards for modern NFL defensive excellence in 2008 and 2010, the Steelers defense began fading in 2011 and 2012 even while keeping their number one overall ranking (in terms of yards allowed).
By 2013 Dick LeBeau could no longer disguise the Steelers defensive deficiencies as they dropped to 13th overall and dropped again to 18th in 2014. Mike Tomlin’s response was to dismiss Dick LeBeau and promote Keith Butler to defensive coordinator.
- Nonetheless, it’s almost become article of faith the Steelers 2015 defense will struggle.
The question must be asked? Have the fans, media and perhaps the Steelers themselves set the bar too low for the Steelers 2015 defense?
Given the piss poor showing of the Steelers defense in preseason vs. the Bills and the Panthers, the question seems preposterous. But if one considers Steelers close to 2014, the lineup, and the maturation of draft picks there are any number of reasons why the arrow should be pointing up.
Steelers Defense Finished 2014 Strong
Several statistical metrics document the decline of the Steelers defense in 2014 from its overall ranking in terms of yards allowed, to average yards allowed rushing or passing.
- But what those measurements fail to reveal is how much better the defense got in December.
As the graph above reveals, the declines at the far right end of the right access depict a Steelers defense stepping it up when the playoffs were on the line.
It began with William Gay’s pick six in Atlanta. A week later, the Steelers defense imposed their will on Kansas City. Finally, vs. the Bengals it was the defense that provided the splash plays that put the Steelers over the top, and catapulted them to their AFC North crown.
- Any discussion of the Steelers 2014 defense must concede that the unit got abused in the playoffs by Joe Flacco.
But the strong finish to the 2014 regular season proves that the arrow was pointed in the right direction.
Roster Turnover On Steelers Defense Exaggerated
If asked about roster continuity, Mike Tomlin would certainly scoff and remind the questioner “Last year is last year, this year is this year.” He is after all the head coach he negated the idea of repeating as Super Bowl champions the morning after his first Lombardi victory.
- Fair enough. Each new year brings a new team, and everyone starts from zero.
But for all of the talk about all of the “new faces” on the Steelers defense, the Steelers 2015 defense will field most of the same starters as the Steelers 2014 defense did. Jason Worilds has retired, Troy Polamalu has retired, and the Steelers have cut Brett Keisel.
- However, the fact is that the 2014 Steelers defense was at its best in December when Will Allen and Stephon Tuitt were starting
On paper, Arthur Moats is a step down from Jason Worilds, but in his first full year of starting Worilds showed that he was a good outside linebacker but not a great one. Beyond that, the only missing piece from the Steelers defense is Brice McCain.
Isn’t Cover-2 Supposed to be Simpler?
Dick LeBeau took a lot of heat from fans over the past few seasons. One of the more ridiculous criticisms was that the game had somehow passed him by. Opposing offenses didn’t suddenly discover the magic formula for defeating the Zone Blitz. Nor did LeBeau suddenly forget how to counter an offense.
- One legitimate criticism of LeBeau was that his system took too long for rookies to pick up.
The increase in rookie snaps on defense from 2012 to 2013 explains the beginning of the decline of the Steelers defense more than anything else. One of the reasons why Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler are transitioning to Cover 2 is to implement a similar system that is easier for new players to pick up.
- The Steelers are now transitioning to a new defensive system for the first time since 1992. The transition will not be seamless.
However, if Cover 2 is in fact a simpler system, then the learning curve should not be that steep.
The Future Is Now for Steelers Draft Investment in Defense
In the last 3 years the Steelers have invested close to a half dozen premium draft picks on defense. Rookies who come in and play at a high level right away are the exception not the rule in the NFL.
- The simple fact is that now it is time for the Steelers defense to begin reaping draft day dividends.
Shamarko Thomas’ benching is a sign that this isn’t happening. The same can be said for Antwon Blake’s rumored start over Cortez Allen.
But those are only two players. Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Daniel McCullers, Sean Spence, and Vince Williams have all passed the developmental stage and it is time for them to deliver.
It’s Up to the Butler to Do it
For eleven seasons Keith Butler has worked as Dick LeBeau’s understudy. On several occasions he’s declined offers to leave Pittsburgh to don the defensive coordinator’s headset somewhere else. On other occasions, Mike Tomlin declined to give permission for other teams to interview Butler.
- This winter the call came again, and Butler was prepared to take it.
The Steelers opted to let LeBeau walk and promote Keith Butler. The hot defensive coaching commodity’s day has come. Proof of Keith Butler’s success as a position coach can be seen in the development of James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, James Worilds, and Vince Williams among others.
- Even the most ardent optimist could not reasonably expect the Steelers 2015 defense to dominate.
Based on what was seen in preseason, the Steelers defense appears to be headed in the wrong direction. But while preseason often provides solid indicators of where a particular unit is heading, that is not always the case.
During the 2005 preseason the Pittsburgh Steelers passing offense struggled to the point that when it was all over, Bill Cowher admitted that the passing game wasn’t where it needed to be. But when the games began to count, Ben Roethlisberger went until October 23rd without throwing an interception.
But, objectively speaking, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the pieces to improve on their dismal 2014 defensive showing and its up to Keith Butler to make this happen. He’s waited for this moment for a long time, now it is time to prove that Keith Butler is up to the task.