Mike Tomlin Hires Brian Flores as Senior Defensive Assistant, Linebackers Coach

The Pittsburgh Steelers continued to complete their coaching roster this weekend when they announced that former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores was joining Mike Tomlin’s staff as “senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach.”

When Keith Butler retired he created a vacancy as he had focused on outside linebackers since Joey Porter’s dismissal following the 2018 season, so the move was not totally unexpected.

  • The decision to bring in a former head coach like Flores is surprising, if not uncharacteristic.

Brian Flores is of course engaged in a lawsuit against the NFL and 3 NFL teams over racial discrimination. Launching lawsuits against former implores is usually treated as Kryptonite by future employers. But a little Kryptonite isn’t forcing Mike Tomlin to shy away:

I am excited about Brian Flores joining our coaching staff given his history of developing and teaching defensive players during his time in the NFL. Brian’s resume speaks for itself, and I look forward to him adding his expertise to help our team.

Suffice to say, neither Mike Tomlin nor Art Rooney II are concerned about the legal or other off the field ramifications of hiring Flores.

Brian Flores, Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Dolphins

Mike Tomlin and Brian Flores shake in 2019. Photo Credit: Joe Sargent, Getty Images, vai The Phinsider

Hiring Flores Should Help, Just as Past Tomlin “Splash” Coaching Decisions Did

In football terms the decision to hire Flores equals a pure positive. While it is unusual for former head coaches to take jobs below coordinator level, it is completely characteristic for Tomlin to find places for those coaches on his staff.

  • And when Tomlin has done that, the Steelers have been successful.

Todd Haley will always be a lightning rod for Steelers fans and is apparently difficult to work with. But the blunt truth is that for all the friction between Haley and Ben Roethlisberger, Big Ben played his best ball under Todd Haley. Moreover, Haley allowed “Ben to be Ben” while ensuring a quicker release, thereby reducing sacks and adding years to his career.

From 2010 to 2012 the Steelers made serious draft capital investments in their offensive line. Yet, none of those investments began to pay dividends until Mike Munchak joined the Steelers in 2014.

And while the Steelers defense had been making under the radar progress by late 2018, Teryl Austin arrived after that, helped oversee the emergence of unit that dominated beginning with Minkah Fitzpatrick’s arrival until injuries and COVID-19 hollowed the unit in late 2020.

  • I have no idea if Flores’ tanking accusations are true or not.

But Miami’s personnel moves in early 2019 clearly signaled the franchise was in a build draft capital now, win later mode. But if you didn’t know that and tuned into the first 20 minutes of the Dolphins 2019 Sunday Night Football game against the Steelers, you’d have never guessed that Miami arrived at Heinz Field 0-7.

  • The Dolphins’ demeanor was that of a team that saw itself and played as a winner.
Minkah, Fitzpatrick, Minkah Fitzpatrick interception Dolphins, Steelers vs Dolphins MNF

Minkah Fitzpatrick 2nd interception against the Dolphins. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

Sure, Minkah Fitzpatrick’s interceptions, Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt’s sacks and Mason Rudolph’s overcoming his skittishness allowed the Steelers score 27 unanswered points, but it was no surprise that the Dolphins won their next two games.

  • Flores’ 2021 performance offers further evidence. Miami started 1-7 yet finished 9-8.

Those types of dramatic turnarounds are always fueled by good coaching. Flores is a coach who knows how to get the best out of his players, which is why Joe Haden and Cam Heyward have welcomed him to Pittsburgh with open arms.

What of Jerry Olsavsky?

On interesting, unasked question that comes with this news whether Flores’ hire impacts Jerry Olsavsky. Jerry Olsavsky has been the Steelers inside linebackers coach since 2015, when Mike Tomlin split the position responsibilities between inside and outside linebacker, with Joey Porter handling the later.

Butler reassumed those duties in 2019 (and Bud Dupree took off, just saying) and held them through 2021. The announcement about Flores mentions “linebackers” without a modifier.

While the assumption that Olsavsky will return is probably a safe one, Ike Hilliard was dismissed as wide receivers coach and no one knew about it until Frisman Jackson’s hire.

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Steelers Promote Teryl Austin, Hire Frishman Jackson, Show Ike Hilliard the Door

The Pittsburgh Steelers made official what has rumored for weeks, if not years yesterday by promoting Teryl Austin to defensive coordinator. Austin replaces Keith Butler who retired last season after spending 7 years in the role after spending over a dozen as linebackers coach.

Teryl Austin, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin

New Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Photo Credit: Chaz, Palla, Tribune Review.

Teryl Austin is native of Shannon, Pennsylvania and a graduate of Pitt who returned to Pittsburgh for the 2019 season to oversee defensive backs and assist Mike Tomlin with replay challenges.

Under Austin’s guidance, the Steelers secondary ranked second in turnovers in 2019 and first in 2020 before dropping to the middle of the pack in 2021. But even 2021’s 22 takeaways were down from previous years, likely due in part to the ease at which anyone with a plus could run on the Steelers defense, is a far cry from the Steelers 2018 effort when the defense posted a meager 14 turnovers.

The Steelers recent improvement in turnovers is certainly more due to the arrival of game changers like Minkah Fitzpatrick and the maturation of T.J. Watt, but the direction under Austin is clear.

Prior to joining the Steelers, Austin coached the defense for the Cincinnati Bengals, were he was fired at mid season  after his unit gave up 3 consecutive 500 yard games. Prior to that, Austin worked as the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions from 2014 to 2017 and coached against the Steelers overseeing the Seahawks defensive backs in 2005 in Super Bowl XL and the Cardinals secondary in 2008 in Super Bowl XLIII.

Jackson, Hillard Out @ WR Coach

Those weren’t the only coaching moves the Steelers made this week. In a move that caught the Steelers press by surprise, the team announced that Frishman Jackson had been hired as wide receivers coach.

This is notable because, with media access restricted due to COVID-19, no one knew that the Steelers had declined to renew the contract of Ike Hilliard.

  • If the firing Hillard and hiring Jackson move caught the press by surprise, it is in character for Mike Tomlin.

The wide receivers coaching position has seen several changes during Mike Tomlin’s tenure. Randy Fitchner was his first receivers coach, moving to quarterbacks coach after the 2009 season. Tomlin brought in Scottie Montgomery from the college ranks, but Montgomery found himself unable to handle the wide receivers room following Hines Ward‘s retirement during the Young Money era.

To remedy that, Tomin brought Richard Mann out of retirement, and under Mann’s wing, Antonio Brown blossomed into one of the NFL’s best receivers. While Brown remained a handful off the field during this time, he was generally under control. That began to change when Mann retired after the 2017 season giving way to Darryl Drake.

Darryl Drake passed away after just one season as wide receivers coach and was replaced by former Steelers offensive coordinator Ray Sherman.

Under Hillard Diontae Johnson has developed steadily, if unevenly, but Chase Claypool, the Steelers 2nd pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, did not make the coveted “sophomore lead” during his 2nd year.

With Austin’s hire official, the Steelers still need to find a new defensive backs coach and the offensive line coaching slot also remains vacant.

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Steelers 2021 Final Report Card: Not Too Tardy to Break Even Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who isn’t too tardy to break even, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
In in final season, Ben Roethlisberger went 390-605-3,740-22-11 for a passer rating of 86.8. At times he flash Hall of Fame caliber play, at others he looked like he was struggling to be average. Overall his play was solid, and without his gravitas the Steelers would have been lucky to have won 4 games. Still he was slipping. Mason Rudolph looked “OK” in his one start. Grade: B-

Running Backs
As a Steelers running back struggled more break the 1000 yard mark than Najee Harris did in 2021? Maybe Jerome Bettis in 1999. Maybe. Harris had no help from the line and seldom enjoyed Derek Watt’s escort services. Yet Harris got it done. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage saw little more than spot duty and neither showed themselves capable of spelling Harris for long periods of time – not behind this line. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was splitting snaps fairly evenly until he got hurt vs the Chargers. At that point Pat Freiermuth stepped with Zach Gentry and together with Kevin Rader made tight end to be one of the few bright spots on offense. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
On balance, Diontae Johnson showed he is a good but not great receiver. Chase Claypool flashed promise and frustration in equal parts as consistency eluded him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost early in the season. James Washington was never more than just sort of “there.” Ray-Ray McCloud had a decent time as a number 4 wide out. The Steelers needed more from this unit. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Yes injuries, surprise retirements, starting rookies too soon and inconsistent coaching were all factors. The bottom line is Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times and the run blocking was atrocious at times. Grade: F

Defensive Line
How do you grade a unit like this? Cam Heyward authored a Hall of Fame worthy season playing alongside… practice squaders. Seriously, guys like Chris Wormley and  Montravius Adams may have shown that they’re serviceable, but they are not starters. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored a NFL MVP worthy season suggesting generational talent. Alex Highsmith had his issues, but got better as the season went along. On the inside it was a different story. Robert Spillane is strong against the run but can’t cover the pass. Joe Schobert was decent against the pass. Devin Bush, well let’s just hope his ACL was really bothering him. Watt brings this group’s grade up. Way up. Grade: C-

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
Cam Sutton authored a strong year in his first season as a starter. Joe Haden showed he has something left, but his body is beginning to brake down while Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong at the end of the year. Terrell Edmunds might not make many splash plays, but he did play in 98% of the snaps and continued to improve. Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have put together the highlight footage he did in years past, but make no mistake about it, he’s the best player on the defense not named Watt. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell had a spectacular season. Ray-Ray McCloud showed himself to be a decent return man after a shaky start. Coverage was generally solid. Pressley Harvin had his ups and downs, but the team stuck with him in the face of personal tragedy. Grade: B

Coaching
On offense, the Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and the progress that the unit saw came to a dead stop when Kevin Dotson got hurt and Kendrick Green hit the rookie wall.

  • So Canada’s off the hook right? Not so fast.

Canada isn’t responsible for the personnel he has to work with, but he certainly is in charge of how they are used. The worst sin an offensive coordinator can commit is to try to force a system on players unsuited. Worse yet, is when the coordinators insist on forcing even after it is clear the players are unsuited. Canada appears to have done that in 2021, which is not a good sign for his return.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

On defense Keith Butler quickly discovered he had a hole in his middle that he didn’t have the personnel to plug. How does one judge a coaching job when one could easily argue that 3 if not 4 of the defense’s front seven need replacing?

Injures, retirements and COVID fueled salary cap limitations left Mike Tomlin the NFL’s most manic depressive roster. On the defensive line alone it was like seeing Hulk Hogan alongside the Batten Twins.

And if Tomlin does deserve some of the criticism for those talent deficiencies – and he does – he also deserves credit for finding a way to eek 9 wins out of this roster. Grade: C

Front Office
As mentioned in our Steelers 2021 Season Review, Pittsburgh actually had a decent plan for fielding a competitive team despite weathering salary cap Armageddon. But injuries and retirements wiped 3 starters off of the board before summer’s end with 2 more losses before the leaves had fallen. And if some of the “next men” up faltered, other replacements fared better. The Front Office faced a potential devastating salary cap situation and fought it to a draw. Grade: C

Unsung Heroes
The Steelers 2021 roster had a lot of holes, holes where the proverbial “Next man up” failed to plug. But a look back at the season finds two non-first line players making consistent contributions doing “the little things” that help win games, and that’s why Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood are the Unsung Heroes of the 2021 Season.

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Steelers 2021 Season Review: A Worthy Gamble that Came Up Short

The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7-1, followed by a one-and-done playoff exit. That looks respectable to the naked eye. But Dan Rooney’s words from 22 years back offer sobering context.

The 2000 Steelers finished 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the 3rd straight year. To many, this confirmed that the Steelers were mired in mediocrity. Dan Rooney demurred.

Instead, Rooney pointed to the 2000 AFC Championship game, which saw the Ravens defeat the Raiders. Rooney reminded willing listeners that the Steelers had beaten both teams, arguing that those wins were a true gauge of the Steelers nascent contender status.

Now, measure the 2021 Steelers with Dan Rooney’s yard stick. Pittsburgh looks pitiful. Both the Bengals and the Chiefs spanked the Steelers. Twice. And it was a simpler task for both teams the second time.

  • Why did the Steelers 2021 season end this way?

It is tempting to think of Milton Bradley’s board game “Life,” where a player who reaches the end with little money puts what they have on a number and spins the wheel. Hit their number and they win as a Tycoon. Otherwise, they lose.

Yeah, it kinda feels like Art Rooney II put his aging franchise quarterback on a number and spun the wheel. But that’s not what happened.

  • The Steelers had a strategy for winning in 2021. And one that was plausible, if not probable.

Did their strategy hinge on several calculated risks – call them gambles if you will – Yes! absolutely. Did the gamble ultimately fail? Yes. But if you want to understand why they made it, just take a look the lay of the land back in May 2021.

Ben Roethlisberger, Art Rooney II, Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field, Steelers vs Browns

Art Rooney II and Ben Roethlisberger embrace. Photo Credit: Steelers.com, Karl Roser

Who the ’21 Steelers Thought They Had

Start by looking at who the Steelers thought they had after the 2021 NFL Draft.

Their projected offensive line went Chukwuma Okorafor, Kevin Dotson, Kendrick Green, David DeCastro and Zach Banner.

David DeCastro never played a down. Zach Banner never fully recovered from his ACL tear. That combined with other concerns pushed Chuks Okorafor to right tackle. The Steelers lost Dotson mid-season, and then within three weeks, they were starting their 6th string guard John Leglue.

  • Anyone still wonder why Najee Harris got hit before reaching the line of scrimmage so often?

At wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s surprise return lasted all of 5 weeks (plus the playoffs).

Stephon Tuitt, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs Ravens

Stephon Tuitt sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

On defense, Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler expected Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu to be manning a front line backed by Vince Williams alongside a fully recovered Devin Bush. Neither Tuitt nor Vince Williams ever played a down. Tyson Alualu’s season ended in the first quarter of the Steelers week 2 loss to the Raiders.

As for Devin Bush? At best he struggled in returning from his ACL tear; at worst he’s deforming himself from a former rookie of the year into one of the worst busts in franchise history.

  • Someone still want to speculate on why the Steelers runs defense was terrible?

So, do these “could haves” add up to enough “would haves” to equal a roster talented enough help Ben Roethlisberger retire with the elusive 3rd ring?

  • Uh… I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on it either.

But think about it. Remember the ugly implosion the Steelers suffered at the end of 2007? How many went into 2008 saying, “This is a Super Bowl team!” Not many. Yet, they won Super Bowl XLIII.

But the bottom line is that after weathering salary-cap Armageddon, the roster the Steelers assembled in May 2021 was a lot stronger than the one that took the field in late September.

’21 Steelers Channeled Their Inner Jimmy Hendrix

If you had to pick a theme song for the 2021 Steelers, Jimmy Hendrix’s “Manic Depressive” would fit the bill. The Steelers finished 9-7-1. Yet they needed 7 fourth-quarter comebacks to pull that off. The Steelers got their teeth kicked in by quality teams such as the Bengals, Chiefs, and Packers. Yet, they beat playoff teams like the Titans and Bills.

They staged two dramatic “almost comebacks” against the Chargers and Vikings. Those comebacks were needed because you have to go back to the 1940s to find a worse first-half offense and worse run defenses.

  • But those Manic-Depressive symptoms were products of a bipolar roster.

To understand just how profoundly bipolarity was hardwired into this Steelers’ roster, let’s draw an analogy between the Steelers’ projected starting front five and a 1980’s WWF Survivor Series team.

Mike Tomlin thought he had a fivesome of Owen Hart, Hulk Hogan, Arn Anderson, Bruiser Brody and Ric Flair. Sure, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt came through as the Hulkster and the Nature Boy, but they ended up teaming with the Blue Blazer, Randy Mulkey and Steve Lombardi.

Keith Butler, Matt Canada and Mike Tomlin all shoulder some blame, but Craig Wolfley was right when he concluded after the 2nd Bengals’ game, “It’s not about the X’s and the O’s, it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.”

A Few Pieces in Place for the Future

With Ben Roethlisberger retiring, the Steelers face a long, challenging road. But they also start their journey with a few good players.

Najee Harris is a real find at running back. In Pat Freiermuth, the Steelers finally appear to have replaced Heath Miller. Zach Gentry has grown into solid number 2 tight end. Dan Moore, John LeGlue and Montravius Adams appear to be serviceable lineman. The Steelers trades for Isaiahh Loudermilk and Ahkello Witherspoon look a lot better today than when the trades were made.

The Gamble Was Worth It

Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers vs Browns, Ben Roethlisberger final game Heinz Field

Ben Roethlisberger gives thanks. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The cold, hard football Realpolitik conclusion will always be that Art Rooney II shouldn’t have gambled on a final shot at Lombardi Number 7 with Ben Roethlisberger.

  • I’m not so sure that’s correct conclusion.

Without Ben Roethlisberger the Steelers would have been lucky to have won more than 4 games. And if Ben Roethlisberger was clearly on the decline in 2021, also he had more left in the tank than Peyton Manning had in his final year. With the right roster it would have been an extreme long shot, but still a shot.

  • But those are hypotheticals whose answers will remain forever unknown.

The reality of the Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 is concrete and will last forever: Ben Roethlisberger retires without his third ring. But before he walked away, he shared some final moments of magic with Steelers Nation as he ended his time at Heinz Field in the victory formation.

And that alone makes Art Rooney II’s gamble worth it.

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Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

Pittsburgh Steelers, Steelers training camp Latrobe, Keith Butler, T.J. Watt, Ryan Shazier

Keith Butler with T.J. Watt and Ryan Shazier. Photo Credit: USA Today Steelers Wire

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Joe Haden, Joe Haden interception Patriots, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski

Joe Haden’s interception was the catch of the game. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive.com

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”
Bud Dupree, Baker Mayfield, Bud Dupree strip sack Baker Mayfield

Bud Dupree strip sacks Baker Mayfield. Photo Credit: Barry Reeger, PennLive

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.
Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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RD Steelers Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler Retires. Why You Might Miss Him More Than You Think…

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler made the speculation official over the weekend when he announced his retirement via the team website:

It is an emotional day as I announce I am retiring from my football coaching career. I have spent every year since 1990 as a coach in the NFL and the NCAA, but the time is right for me to walk away after a successful career both playing and coaching the game I love.

Butler also thanked the Rooneys, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin and of course his family.

Keith Butler joined the Steelers in 2003 as the linebackers coach on Bill Cowher’s staff. Mike Tomlin retained him in the same role. During that time Keith Butler’s reputation grew, and several times Butler’s sense of loyalty led him to turn down offers to leave Pittsburgh and take defensive coordinator’s jobs elsewhere.

  • The word was that he’d been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent.

And, when Mike Tomlin decided to move on from Dick LeBeau after the 2014 season, Keith Butler got his wish when Tomlin promoted him to defensive coordinator. Then things got interesting.

The Butler Did it, But….

Unlike their counter-parts on the offensive side of the ball, Steelers defensive coordinators are revered by fans. Dick LeBeau was a legend from the moment he returned to Pittsburgh in 2004. When Dom Caper’s runs as head coach ended, fans salivated at the prospect of bringing him back. Bud Carson and George Perles hold god-like status in Steelers Golden Age Lore.

  • And then there’s Keith Butler.

Keith Butler took over a defensive unit that had slipped from elite status that was in the middle of a rebuild. And for as much as I respect and reviver Dick LeBeau, the truth is his defenses struggled to secure turnovers. Troy Polamalu maked that trend, but the trend was real.

Keith Butler helped change that, as the turnovers returned to the Steelers defense in 2015. And the fact is that the Steelers defense improved progressively, if unevenly, from the beginning of 2015 through the middle of 2017.

At that point, injuries to Joe Haden exposed lack of depth in the secondary, and losing Ryan Shazier gutted the heart of the unit. While it largely occurred under the radar, the defense had recovered some of its moxie by the end of 2018, as its performance in the win over the Patriots and the game over the Saints attest.

By 2019 the Steelers defense has re-attained elite level led by the likes of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bud Dupree. The Steelers defense maintained that level through 2020, until injuries to Bud Dupree, Devin Bush and most of the rest of their inside linebacking corps made them soft in the middle.

  • All of this happened under Keith Butler’s watch, with him in the sidelines, calling the plays.

Yet fans grudgingly if ever gave Butler credit for it.

Word was that “The defense is Mike Tomlin’s baby.” The defense was indeed different from the 3-4 Zone Blitz that Cowher, Capers, LeBeau and Marv Lewis installed in the early 1990’s and then spent over two decades perfecting. Acknowledging Mike Tomlin’s hands-on role in the defense makes sense, but using that knowledge to negate Butler’s influence seems outright silly.

But that probably won’t convince most Butler skeptics. But something else might.

Why You Might Miss Keith Butler More Than You Think….

Take yourself back to January 2019. Back to a time when masks were something we wore on Halloween, COVID-19 sounded like it could have been a trendy name for a smoothie, and all anyone could talk about were how nasty Ben Roethlisberger had been to Antonio Brown (and for some reason, Le’Veon Bell.)

Now that you’ve returned to January 2019, I’m going to say a name, and you’re going to say the first word that pops into your mind. Here goes: “Bud Dupree.”

  • And your first word was certainly: “Bust.”

After a strong rookie year and an underappreciated strong sophomore season to say that Bud Dupree had “plateaued” in his 3rd and 4th years was being polite. Dupree simply wasn’t getting it done. The Steelers had picked up his 5th year option and the conventional wisdom was that they should have revoked it.

And when Mike Tomlin fired Joey Porter and announced that Keith Butler would resume coaching of the outside linebackers, fans took it as a confirmation that Butler was merely a defensive figure head (never mind that Bill Cowher had simultaneously held Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers coaching titles in Kansas City.)

  • No one thought of what it might mean to Bud Dupree’s development.

To the naked eye it meant a lot. In his 5th season Bud Dupree exploded to make as many sacks has he’d made in years 3 and 4 combined. Moreover, he was doing it at critical moments in games. Can you prove this was due to Butler’s influence? No, but we do know that Keith Butler mentored and developed LaMarr Woodley.

As Tony Defeo pointed out in Behind the Steel Curtain shortly after Woodley was cut:

From Week 1 of the 2008 season (his first full season as a starter after being picked in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft) through that aforementioned ill-fated game against New England on October 30, 2011, Woodley recorded an incredible 44 sacks in a 55 game span.

Only Harrison with his 36.5 sacks in 47 games from 2008-2010 comes close to matching Woodley’s pace.

T.J. Watt may very well have eclipsed that pace since then, but you know what? If he did, he did it after Keith Butler returned to the outside linebackers room.

Keith Butler also oversaw James Harrison’s journey from the guy who kept getting cut to the one who made an NFL record 99 yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII and then went on to break the Steelers franchise sack record.

Naysayers will always say “Nay.” Insist in minimizing Keith Butler’s role in running the defense if you will, but you must acknowledge his ability to mentor some of the best players those defenses have ever fielded.

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Steelers Report Card for Win Over Ravens: Rebound with Force Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher unabashedly proud of his student ability forcefully rebound, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Heinz Field win over the Ravens.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers vs Ravens, Minkah Fitzpatrick end zone interception

Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepts Lamarr Jackson in the end zone. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterbacks
The “Bench Ben” calls look silly now, don’t they? Ben Roethlisberger played perhaps his finest game of the season, going 21-31-1-0 for 236 yards and he had a perfectly thrown touchdown ball dropped. You don’t lead 51 comeback wins by accident, and you don’t earn your 51st against the AFC’s leading team if you’re washed up. Grade: A

Running Backs
Najee Harris had his best night on the ground in weeks gaining 71 yards on 21 carries and he banged out his best ones with the game on the line. He also caught 5 passes for 36 yards. Benny Snell came in late and while he only had two carries for 13 yards, he ran strong and sustained a scoring drive. Grade: B+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth and 3 catches for 26 yards including two that set up the Steelers first score. And he came through with a very difficult 2 point conversion catch. Zach Gentry had 2 catches on the final Steelers scoring drive, one that converted a 3rd down and another than brought them to the 2. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson caught 8 of 11 passes thrown his way for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He is developing into something special. Chase Claypool was having a relatively quiet night, until he opened the 4th quarter by flipping the field, setting up the Steelers first touchdown. Ray-Ray McCloud had one catch for 7 yards and was robbed of a 32 yarder. James Washington had one pass thrown his way. Diontae Johnson’s dropped TD lowers the group grade. Grade: A-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was sacked once and hit 3 other times which might be some sort of record low for the Steelers-Ravens rivalry. The biggest difference however was the run blocking. When John Leglue entered the game following B.J. Finney’s injury, he became the 5th player to man the left guard position for the Steelers. Instead of contributing to the downward spiral of the line, he delivered improvements to the run blocking and that, quite frankly, was the difference in this game. Grade: A

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward was his usual disruptive self, dropping players behind the line of scrimmage, hitting Lamar Jackson and sacking him to help set up the Steelers first score. Montravius Adams walked in off the street and batted down a pass on his eight play as a Steeler. The Ravens came in to Pittsburgh with the NFL’s number one rushing attack and barely cracked 100 yards. Grade: A

Linebackers
If T.J. Watt was this good after having COVID how explosive would he have been at full health? Watt’s 3.5 sacks and forced fumble get the attention, but ability to set the edge in the running game and stay disciplined in pursuit of Jackson were equally important. Watt’s first pressure of Jackson forced an interception. His last force an incompletion on a 2-point conversion. Alex Highsmith had struggled against the run but made two tackles for losses. Joe Schobert had a pass defensed. Grade: A

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick’s end zone interception set the tone not only took 7 points off the board for the Ravens, but it set the tone for the evening. Ahkello Witherspoon got his first start and deflected a 3rd down pass that set up the Steelers final scoring drive. The Ravens converted several third and longs, but the Steelers defense limited the Ravens to 19 points. Grade: B+

Special Teams
It was an on and off night for the Steelers special teams. They gave up a long kick return that set up the Ravens 3rd quarter score. Chris Boswell’s mortar kick was well-placed but rolled out of bounds giving the Ravens 15 free yards and untold seconds on the clock. That may not have been his “fault” but the missed extra point was. Ray-Ray McCloud was OK on punt returns but added nothing on as a kick returner. Tre Norwood was perfect on the on-sides kick recovery. Grade: C

Coaching
Matt Canada dialed back some of the bells and whistles of his offense, but remained committed to the run. The Steelers rushing totals weren’t impressive, but it opened up the passing game.

  • Keith Butler had his work cut out for him on defense.

The Steelers defense had gone from suffering quarterly lapses in the running game, to something far more systemic. And they had the NFL’s most dynamic quarterback to defense. Yet Butler managed to find the perfect mix of pressure, containment and coverage.

Chris Wormley, Lamarr Jackson, Steelers vs. Ravens

Chris Wormley sacks Lamarr Jackson. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

But neither Canada’s nor Butler’s schemes wouldn’t have mattered an iota had the Steelers been pushed around at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers instead won those battles after several weeks of losing them. Mike Tomlin deserves credit for snapping that trend and keeping his players positive and focused. Grade: A

Unsung Hero Award
Jersey numbers mean a lot to Steelers fans. Sometimes new players live up to the pedigree. Most often they do not. Since Greg Lloyd retired 22 years ago, 9 different players have worn Number 95. All were either forgettable or disappointing. But against the Ravens number 95 exploded for 2.5 sacks, 3 more QB hits and several stops for no gain, and for that Chris Wormley wins the Unsung Hero Award for the win over the Ravens.

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Steelers Report Card for Loss to Bengals. Time to Give Out F’s Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher fearing his students are slacking off just when the end of the semester crunch as begun, here is the Steelers Report Card for the 2021 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

Tee Higgins, James Pierre, Steelers vs Bengals

Tee Higgins burns James Pierre for a touchdown. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger played poorly. Cincinnati scored 17 points off of turnovers. If the Steelers can even manage to get field goals on those drives the dynamic of the game shifts drastically. Beyond the turnovers, Roethlisberger missed too many makeable throws. Grade: F

Running Backs
Najee Harris did better than his 2.9 yards-per-carry average would suggest, but with 8 carries he didn’t get much of a chance to do anything. Benny Snell had 2 carries. One for 4 yards another for 1. Kalen Ballage had 3 carries for 21 yards in garbage time, but at least he did well against Cincinnati’s JV. Anthony McFarland, activated because of special teams, did nothing to show he deserves a helmet as a running back. Grade: C

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught 4 passes on 4 targets while Zach Gentry caught 1 of 2. That’s good, but this team needs better run blocking from its offensive line. Grade: CSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
Diontae Johnson had 9 catches for 95 yards on 14 targets while Chase Claypool had 3 on 8 targets for 82 yards. James Washington had 1 catch for 3 yards and Anthony Miller had 1 for 2 yards. Grade: B-

Offensive Line
Ben Roethlisberger was only sacked twice and hit two more times, but pass protection was weak with Ben unable to step into his throws. Run blocking was equally bad with Najee Harris having no daylight. Unless this group improves the Steelers will likely not win another game this season. Grade: F

Defensive Line
The Steelers moved Cam Heyward to nose tackle, trying to shore up the middle, and sat Isaiah Buggs. Neither move worked and both likely hurt the run defense. Heyward had a sack, but a lone bright spot. Grade: F

Linebackers
Alex Highsmith continues to work under the radar but T.J. Watt was clearly not 100% Devin Bush is struggling leaving a lot of space for Joe Schobert to cover on his own. Taco Charlton and Derrek Tuszka are making Generation X Steelers fans long for the days of Carlos Emmons. Grade: F

Secondary
James Pierre might develop into a quality cornerback, but he struggled all day in Joe Haden’s absence. Minkah Fitzpatrick was back and made a phenomenal interception that ultimately went for naught. But Joe Burrow completed 20 of 24 passes which tells you all you need to know. Grade: F

Special Teams
Anthony McFarland took over kick return duties for Ray-Ray McCloud and did a respectable job, whereas Cam Sutton did fare too well with his 2 punt returns. Chris Boswell made his one field goal and booted it into the end zone. Pressley Harvin III did “OK.” Grade: C+

Coaching
After showing steady progress throughout October and early November, Matt Canada’s offense is regressing towards its mean. After broaching respectability the running game is faltering. While falling behind early isn’t helping it, Canada doesn’t seem committed to establish the run.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Nor has employed creative measures, like Jet sweeps, to jump start the ground game.

  • The alternative looks frighteningly like the offense based on 3 and 5 yard passes that sabotaged the Steelers in 2020.

On defense, Keith Butler has little to work with. If Doc Brown rolled up on the South Side and out of the DeLorean strode Kenneth Davis, Donald Evans and Tyronne Stowe one can imagine Butler, Karl Dunbar and Jerry Olsavsky jumping for joy at Flux Capacitor-infused upgrades they were enjoying.

  • Let that sink in for a moment. (Google the names if need be)

It says here that the Steelers ills are rooted in talent and not in coaching or scheming, but regardless this group of players is headed in the wrong direction. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He had 9 tackles and looked good in both run support as well as covering passes via the slot while participating in just under ½ of the Steelers snaps. There’s nothing “special” about being in the right place and making a tackle when you should but those to characteristics are in short supply with the Steelers and for that Arthur Maulet wins Unsung Hero Award honors for the loss to Cincinnati.

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Steelers Report Card for Tie with Lions: Peaking vs “Learning Experience” Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who hopes his students can use this as a learning experience but fears they may have just hit their peak, here is the Steelers Report Card for the tie against the Lions.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush, Steelers vs Lions

Oh, what could have been. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review

Quarterback
Anyone still wonder why the Steelers opted to bring back a dismissed Ben Roethlisberger? Mason Rudolph did not play poorly, completing 30 out of 50 passes for one interception and another touchdown. But Rudolph also missed on some throws the Steelers needed him to make. Grade: C-

Running Backs
Najee Harris ran for 105 yards on 26 carries. While 26 carries perhaps a few more than you’d like to see his four yards per carry average indicates that perhaps they should have leaned on him more. If Benny Snell’s lone carry for four yards is any indicate, he could have been used to spell Harris. Derek Watt actually caught a pass for nine yards. Grade: B

Tight End
Mason Rudolph largely avoided the middle of the field, limited the tight ends a bit. Eric Ebron caught 2 passes for 13 yards while Pat Freiermuth caught 5 passes for 31 yards, but he unfortunately fumbled the ball away in overtime. Grade: DSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
The Steelers have done well in combat catches this season, but both Diontae Johnson and James Washington lost contested balls. Ray-Ray McCloud showed why Mike Tomlin kept him after his fumble as he pulled in 9 catches. Johnson showed impressive presence of mind getting out of bounds during overtime, but this happened after he fumbled the ball on a field-flipping play. Grade: D

Offensive Line
Mason Rudolph was neither sacked nor hit during the entire game, per ESPN’s statistics. And, as mentioned, Harris had good room to run. Grade: B+

Defensive Line
For about 20 minutes, the Detroit Lions ran through the Steelers defense like they were indeed live lions charging through lines of Christians in the Coliseum. That is decidedly NOT the fault of the line, but it starts there. Cam Heyward came up with a monster sack at the end of regulation and another one in overtime. Grade: C-

Linebackers
T.J. Watt was awfully quiet in this game until sacking Jared Goff for a 6 yard loss – a play on which he got hurt. Alex Highsmith came up big with two big tackles for losses late in the 4th quarter. Still, the Lion ran at will for a time and Devin Bush and Joe Schobert don’t deserve all of the blame for that, they duo is charged with guarding the middle of the defense. Grade: D

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick symbolizes what this game could have been. His nullified interception should have decided overtime, yet his missed tackles helped dig the Steelers into the hole. James Pierre did well in place of Joe Haden. Terrelll Edmunds overtime sack should have turned the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams
Kalif Raymond 48 yard punt return awakened the Lions and set up their first touchdown, a 28 yard romp that would get Detroit believing they could win the game. That wasn’t a lone play as averaged over 11 yards on his next returns. Steelers kick coverage was shaky too.

Chris Boswell was 3-3 on field goals including a 51 yarder in the rain, which pulls the grade for Danny Smith’s group up. Grade: C-

Coaching
For the first time this season, Matt Canada’s play calling led to some head scratching. We can accept that the reads on RPOs in the Red Zone were correct based on 5 Detroit defensive lineman on the field.

  • But does that explain throwing the ball 50 times when Najee Harris is running reasonably well?

Was Canada trying to do more through the air because he thought Rudolph was more capable (with fewer receivers BTW?) Did he want to see Rudolph prove himself? Regardless of his motive, his game plan was questionable in theory and failed in practice.

  • Keith Butler must find a way to coax more consistency out of his rushing defense.

The Lions running game was unstoppable for a quarter. Most of this was due to poor tackling, but that is hardly an excuse.

Najee Harris, Steelers vs Lions

Najee Harris in overtime. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune-Review.

Finally, this column has credited Mike Tomlin when his players refused to “blink” with the game on the line. In overtime his defense did the same in this game. The offense? Not so much. Grade: D

Unsung Hero Award
The Steelers lost four starters in this game, including 2 on offensive line. Yet the unit continued chugging along with backups in the game and for that J.C. Hassenauer and Joe Haeg win the Unsung Hero Award for the tie with the Lions.

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Steelers Report Card for MNF Win Over the Bears: Just in Time Principles Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who is just as committed to “Just in Time” principles as his students, here is the Steelers Report Card for the Monday Night Win over the Bears.

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

Chase Claypool converts a 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterback
Ben Roethlisberger had an economical night, completing 21 passes in 30 tries for 205 yards including two touchdowns. Most importantly, he completed all of his passes on the game’s final drive, although one must question his decision to kill the clock. Grade: B+

Tight Ends
Rookies are NOT supposed to be this good. Pat Freiermuth came up with his second combat catch in two weeks. Kevin Rader had one catch although why he was targeted on the play is a bit of a head scratcher. Zach Gentry was in for 51% of the snaps but not targeted. The running game could have used some blocking help. Grade: B+

Wide Receivers
The Steelers wide receivers did little to keep Fantasy Football owners happy Monday Night, but each one came up with a key catch. Chase Claypool’s 3rd down conversion was critical. Diontae Johnson almost single handedly put the Steelers in scoring range with his 22 yard pass on the finale drive. James Washington came back to catch a 42 yard pass set up their 3rd quarter touchdown. Ray-Ray McCloud’s 12 yard catch sustained the Steelers final drive. Claypool, Johnson and Washington all made gains on the ground. Grade: A-Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Offensive Line
The offensive line had its worst outing since September. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 4 times and hit 5 more. The running backs had no room to run. Improvement is needed. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward is a monster. His interception helped the Steelers build an early lead and he hit Justin Fields 3 times. The Bears did run a little better than you’d like to see, but overall, the defensive line had a solid night. Grade: B

Linebackers
T.J. Watt had 3 sacks, two of which came on third down all of which helped force punts. He also deflected the ball on the game’s penultimate play. Devin Bush came up with a key pass deflection late, but he needs to do more. Grade: B

Secondary
Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team in tackles while laying in the wood. Joe Haden deflected a pass. The Bears were able to move the ball through the air late in the game and they made it look easy. Some of this had to do with coverage schemes to contain Justin Fields, but rest assured the Ravens are watching. The secondary has a few weeks to get ready. This game shows they’ll need that time. Grade: D

Special Teams
How do you grade an effort like this? A fumbled punt returned for a touchdown – half way through the 4th quarter in a 10 point game no less. A missed extra point. And some wildly inconsistent punting by Pressley Harvin.

On the plus side Chris Boswell made 3 field goals, two from more than 50 yards including the game winner. And he recovered a fumbled kickoff return. The Steelers coverage was also good. Boswell’s heroics bring this grade up. But if Santos makes his kick, the grade goes down. Grade: C-

Coaching

Keith Butler might have contained the damage that Justin Fields did with his legs, but he has to hope he didn’t provide the Baltimore Ravens with a blueprint for how to move at will on the Steelers defense.

The Steelers defense played well in the first half, but gave up 17 points in the second half, and it looked too easy. You won’t beat many teams that way.

Matt Canada continues to improve week on week. His play scripting early on shows he was ready to exploit the Bears weaknesses. And when he couldn’t get the ground game going with his running backs, he improvised – a year ago in this situation the Steelers would sold out to the short passing game.

Pat Freiermuth, Najee Harris, Steelers vs Bears

Pat Freiermuth and Najee Harris celebrate in the end zone. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

While the need for 4th quarter heroics is something we’d all like to avoid, the Steelers never let themselves get caught up in the moment and those moments were never too big for them. That reflects well on Mike Tomlin. Grade: C

Unsung Hero
It was a tough night for the Steelers running backs. They had nowhere to run. Yet Najee Harris refused to let that daunt him. No where was that more evident than in his second effort on his successful 4th down conversion on the Steelers 2nd touchdown drive. Najee Harris’ resiliency set the tone for the entire team and for that he wins Unsung Hero Award honors for the Monday Night Football win over the Bears.

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