The Butler Did It! Keith Butler Deserves Praise for First Season as Defensive Coordinator

When a coach or player performs poorly, fans and the media are often quick to criticize. However, when it’s the other way around, and a coach or player excels, the praise isn’t always so audible–at least for the coach.

  • Coaches are a lot like game-day officials: The only time anyone notices them is when they’re not performing well.

Keith Butler waited a long time to succeed the legendary Dick LeBeau as the Steelers defensive coordinator. In-fact, he was Pittsburgh’s linebackers coach from 2003-2014, which more than spanned the duration of Dick LeBeau’s second stint after leaving Bill Cowher‘s staff following the Steelers 1996 season.

Being on the staff of a defense that finished number one multiple times and coaching Joey Porter, James Farrior, James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons — in short some of the best linebackers in the entire league, Keith Butler naturally received feelers  from other teams who were willing to give him a shot at running their defenses.

  • However, Butler stuck it out in the hopes that he would someday take the helm and run the Steelers’ defense.

While Keith Butler was surely paid a prettier penny than most linebacker coaches in-order to stick around, it was still a gamble. What would happen if Dick LeBeau‘s defense started to struggle and his schemes suddenly seemed too predictable?

Beginning in 2011, the cracks in Pittsburgh’s defense began to show, when the unit only recorded 15 takeaways and 35 sacks. The trend of low takeaways and 35 sacks continued over the next few years, as the number one rankings soon faded away, and the Steelers’ defense finished 13th and 18th respectively over the final two seasons of Dick LeBeau’s tenure.

With the trends going the other way, the pass-defense being even worse than the unit as a whole (27th in 2014), and players like Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel hanging up their cleats for good, it would have been very easy for head coach Mike Tomlin to go in a totally new direction, with regards to defensive philosophy.

Therefore, for Keith Butler, who will turn 60 in May, to stick around and not consider jump at other coordinator jobs really was quite the risk.

Fortunately for Keith Butler, his loyalty was rewarded, when he was named the defensive coordinator last offseason, following the parting of ways between Dick LeBeau and the Steelers organization.

  • However, what about those huge shoes Butler had to fill?

Sure, Dick LeBeau’s schemes may have seen their better days, but Dick LeBeau was and perhaps will always be the most beloved assistant coach in Steelers history. If the Steelers defense continued to sag in 2015, it would be easy for the fans and the media to quickly turn on the new guy.

Right out of the gate, however, Keith Butler was quick to put his own stamp on the defense, thanks mainly to a more aggressive one-gap style by the defensive linemen, as opposed to the traditional two-gap approach used by LeBeau for so many years.

I would be remiss if I didn’t credit Mike Tomlin for also helping change the defense and implementing a more traditional cover-2 style, but Keith Butler was going to be the one held accountable for the leaks and cracks.

All things considered, Keith Butler deserves much praise for his first season running an NFL defense. It is true that the unit finished 21st overall and a pretty paltry 30th against the pass. However, the name of the game is preventing points, which the defense did fairly well, by only allowing 19.9 per game.

  • And what about the takeaways (30) and the sacks (47) the Steelers defense wracked up? Those are Super Bowl numbers.

Yes, the Steelers defense still needs some refinement–especially the secondary– but it’s hard to argue with the improvements made during Butler’s first season running things.

It’s easy to take the good things for granted, but if 2015 was a disaster, the call for Keith Butler’s head would be very audible.

Therefore, give the new guy some praise; he’s certainly earned it.

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