Analysis: Butler, Steelers defense should improve next season

Mark Kaboly
| Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, 9:48 p.m.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was impressed with defensive coordinator Keith Butler's work this season.

We learned that Wednesday during Tomlin's season-ending news conference when he said, “I was impressed with his work.”

Actually, Tomlin should be (and maybe he is) extremely impressed with Butler's work, because it was, well, impressive.

Butler took over for the lovable and successful Dick LeBeau a year ago in a somewhat uncomfortable way, and he exceeded expectations.

Butler's contract was up. LeBeau's contract was up. Tomlin felt it was time to politely ask LeBeau to step aside. When LeBeau didn't, the Steelers issued one of those infamous press releases in which they try to describe why a coordinator is no longer employed.

It was absolutely the right decision by Tomlin.

The defense — not the offense — was the reason the Steelers advanced to within three minutes of the AFC championship game.

Everything that once ailed the unit seemingly was fixed in one season.

Sacks went from 33 to 48. Turnovers went from 21 to 30. Points allowed dropped almost four per game.

Remember the preseason narrative of needing to score 30 points per game to have a chance to win? The Steelers allowed more than 28 points only twice all season.

The total defense ranking went from 18th to 21st, but that is inconsequential considering the Steelers led the NFL in red-zone turnovers and recorded the third most sacks.

Bottom line: The Steelers defense was much better, and nobody saw that coming — at least not this quickly.

“I think he did a great job, man,” cornerback Antwon Blake said. “Coming in and taking over for LeBeau, that takes a lot. That's a lot of pressure. I thought he did a great job with game plans this year, and we just got to execute them.”

What Butler wanted to do, however, he couldn't. And that's the main reason to be “impressed” by his work.

Butler entered the season with a plan of how he wanted to run the defense.

Basically only one thing went as planned.

Butler wanted to unleash his talented defensive ends to pressure quarterbacks, and that's what Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt did.

Otherwise, Butler changed on the fly.

He wanted to play more zone defense, especially Cover 2. Although it was part of the game plan, it wasn't used much. Instead, Butler spent much of the season devising plans to hide an underachieving secondary.

Where else has half of a starting secondary been benched only days before the opener? But that's what happened when Butler benched Shamarko Thomas and Cortez Allen. It turned out to be the right call.

Where else has a team signed another team's castoff like the Steelers did with Ross Cockrell — who didn't survive the first round of cuts with the Buffalo Bills — and make him a big part of the secondary? Or use a 32-year-old free safety like Will Allen?

The Steelers did both.

“I think anybody that's an architect of football schematics, you have what you want to do, a vision of what you want to do, and then you have the reality,” Tomlin said. “And the reality is usually associated with the abilities of the players that you have the amount of time, or your ability, to teach and the way that your opponent stresses you.”

Still, Butler each week was successful in mixing and matching players, schemes and concepts into what was best for the team.

Just think what Butler could have accomplished with stability in the secondary and depth on the defensive line.

“We surprised a lot of people. We surprised ourselves in some ways,” Blake said. “As the season continued to progress, we came together more and meshed together more as a unit, and you could say our level of play increased and we started making more plays.”

A lot of that was thanks to Butler.

Cornerback William Gay will tell you there wasn't much difference between Butler and LeBeau, or as he put it: “You get a different little sauce or taste, but the main course is still the same. It's the same spaghetti. You probably like your spaghetti way different than he does. At the end of the day, it's still spaghetti.”

Butler's dish just happened to be a bit more appetizing.

He made in-game adjustments. He blitzed just about anybody and everybody. He thought outside the box.

Just think what Butler's defense can do when he has the people to do it with.

That will even be more impressive.

Mark Kaboly is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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