The juxtaposition of most Steelers fans and their opinions on the team following a 42-21 loss to the Chiefs in a Wild Card game at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday night was fascinating.
On one hand, the fans quickly made peace with the fact that Pittsburgh simply didn’t have the stars, the horses, to keep up with the two-time defending AFC Champions.
On the other hand, they pointed to poor coaching and quickly put together a wish list of those they felt should be held accountable. (And “held accountable” has always been code for “fired.”)
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is always at the top of that wish list; he’s always on the hot seat with the fans even if the organization itself appears to have no such furniture. Most fans know this on some level, which is why offensive coordinator Matt Canada and defensive coordinator Keith Butler are the sacrificial lambs they want to see up on the alter after last Sunday’s pathetic performance against a team that, to reiterate, was clearly better.
- Let’s talk about Keith Butler.
It wasn’t long ago that the rumors began to circulate that he wasn’t even designing and calling the defenses any longer, that Tomlin had taken most of those responsibilities away from him. (Never mind that Butler could be seen holding a play sheet and, well calling plays during the heat of games.) I actually think a lot of people forgot about that rumor the previous two seasons when the defense performed at such a level that it could accurately be described as elite.
I suppose it makes sense that people would forget. After all, when something is working quite well, we don’t seem to care all that much about the behind-the-scenes stuff, about how the sausage is made. All we care about is that things are working.
With T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and a few other notables, the Steelers defense purred in 2019 and 2020. Unfortunately for Butler, Dupree left as a free agent last offseason. Mike Hilton, a top slot corner in the league for many years, also departed. Alualu departed as a free agent last March, quickly had a change of heart and came back before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 2 of the 2021 campaign.
- As for Tuitt, he never played a down in 2021.
The speculation never waned as to why–was it the death of his brother or an injury?–but the bottom line was he wasn’t around. Devin Bush struggled coming back from a torn ACL the season before. Joe Schobert, a veteran inside linebacker who seemed to be a genius addition by general manager Kevin Colbert during the preseason, never quite lived up to the euphoria many felt when the trade was made in August.
Heck, even Watt, for as disruptive and destructive as he was in many games while tallying 22.5 sacks, that’s how quiet and ineffective he was while missing three games and parts of a few others with injuries.
- The Steelers defense was not elite in 2021; it finished 24th in total yards allowed–including dead-last against the run.
Let’s move on to Canada. What a crappy offense that was in 2021, right? 23rd, overall, in total yards. It only scored 20.2 points per game. It sure seemed like Canada’s promotion, following the dismissal of Randy Fichtner, was a flop.
Was it a flop, or was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s floppy arm the real culprit? Perhaps it was that young and inexperienced and/or incapable offensive line.
I guess we’ll never know. All we do know is that Canada is the one who people want to see go–and not the washed-up 39-year old quarterback, who may or may not have been willing to buy into a new offensive philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing shade at Roethlisberger. I love the guy, but he wasn’t the same player in 2021 that he was in his prime. Even if he was, his strengths didn’t seem to align with Canada’s offensive philosophy.
Also, let’s not forget who was a part of the Steelers offense in 2021, and it certainly didn’t include Antonio Brown, David DeCastro, Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant or Maurkice Pouncey. In other words, the offense was a shell of its former self and actually has been since Brown burned every bridge out of town following the 2018 season.
Isn’t it funny how effective Randy Fichtner was as a coordinator in 2018 when Brown was still here and Roethlisberger was leading the league in passing yards? Fast-forward to 2019. Brown was gone and Roethlisberger missed most of the year. Suddenly, Fichtner was an idiot without a “plan.”
- No, he was just an offensive coordinator without his two best offensive weapons.
Last season, the offense started strong before everyone figured its secret: Big Ben really didn’t have it anymore following reconstructive elbow surgery, and even if he still did have “it,” that once-great offensive line certainly did not.
- Crowd the line of scrimmage and force Roethlisberger to beat you deep — he rarely could.
My point with all of this is this: Players make the coaches, and no matter how many times you say things like, “You have to adapt your game-plan to fit the strengths of your players,” it’s not going to matter if your players have few strengths.
Back to Butler. Now that he’s actually retired, will it even matter? Especially since Tomlin has been the one calling the shots on defense for years? Even if you want to place all the blame on Tomlin, can he ever devise a game-plan to make up for a reduction in star power? Even if the Rooneys insist that Tomlin hire a credible defensive coordinator and give him full autonomy, can he design a defense to make up for a lack of players like Stephon Tuitt and Bud Dupree?
I think you know the answers to these questions, which is why I liked you better when you admitted that the Chiefs were just a superior football team last Sunday night.
Epilogue – The Immortal Words of Dick LeBeau
In closing perhaps its best to remember the immortal words of Steelers legend Dick LeBeau. The scene was St. Vincents Latrobe and the time was the 1990’s and LeBeau was a coach on Bill Cowher staff. Carnell Lake had just reached an agreement to extend his contract and report to camp. When reporters asked Lebeau how the news made him feel, he quipped:
“I just became a better coach.”
Remember those words for next season, as we discover whether Devin Bush’s 2021 struggles are due to lingering effects of his ACL injury or him just being a mammoth bust. If Bush’s back, Teryl Austin or whomever Mike Tomlin chooses as defensive coordinator has a chance to be pretty smart. Otherwise, he might end up being even dumber than Butler….