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Joe Starkey

Starkey: Players will make or break Steelers' new coordinator

| Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, 11:03 p.m.
Colts receiver Hakeem Nicks catches a pass for a first down as Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen defends during the second quarter Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Colts receiver Hakeem Nicks catches a pass for a first down as Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen defends during the second quarter Sunday, Oct. 26, 2014, at Heinz Field.
The Steelers' Mike Mitchell and the Texans' Arian Foster get physical with each other during the second quarter Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, at Heinz Field.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
The Steelers' Mike Mitchell and the Texans' Arian Foster get physical with each other during the second quarter Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, at Heinz Field.

How do you say goodbye to a legend?

It's one of those awkward dilemmas in professional sports, and whether it's an athlete, coach, executive or broadcaster, there is no graceful method. Especially when the legend doesn't want to leave.

So it was for the Steelers with outgoing defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. He wanted to stay. The Steelers wanted him to leave.

Awk-ward.

But you know what? The Steelers handled the situation as well as could be expected. It was the right move, too, replacing LeBeau with linebackers coach Keith Butler.

It's not that LeBeau, 77, has lost his fastball. He can still coach. His last defense here probably overachieved relative to the paltry talent level available for most games. The issue was that Butler — the apprentice, the heir apparent, the LeBeau “disciple,” as cornerback Ike Taylor describes him — had reached the end of his contract. And maybe the end of his patience.

Butler is 58. He's been a loyal and highly qualified employee, waiting for his chance. He couldn't wait forever. The time had come. It's really that simple.

Players, as much they love LeBeau, certainly weren't surprised or outraged by his ouster.

“We knew it was a long time coming. I think if you really paid attention, you saw the signs,” said Taylor, who likely has played his last game here. “(Butler) was getting paid like a defensive coordinator, just without the title. It's a sad day for everybody when Coach LeBeau leaves the building. But at the same time, you know the business side, and you see the business side of the NFL.”

The Steelers didn't owe LeBeau anything more than what they delivered: Mike Tomlin's complimentary statement via news release. LeBeau could be a competitor of theirs any day now. This is no time for teary goodbye news conferences. Besides, everybody knows the respect level for LeBeau in that building.

Tomlin, remember, once bused his team from Latrobe to Canton, Ohio, to witness LeBeau's Hall of Fame induction. Tomlin vehemently defended LeBeau against any and all criticism the past three years.

But business is business, and the questions now become how Butler puts his stamp on this defense and who exactly will man it.

“He definitely has his own ideas,” Taylor said.

Butler expounded on those in an interview Tuesday on the Steelers' website. He indicated he will run 3-4 and 4-3 alignments. That isn't new. He'll surely implement other ideas. Taylor, speaking on 93.7 The Fan, said he could see the Steelers becoming “more versatile” and more of a “hybrid” of various schemes, like the Patriots.

Butler knows the truth, though, and he spoke it when asked if success is more dependent on the scheme or players.

“It's always the players,” he said. “I've never seen a good coach without good players.”

To that end, the Steelers have some key swing players going into next season. Start at the back end with free safety Mike Mitchell. Taylor estimates Mitchell was operating at 75 percent to 80 percent capacity this season because of a groin injury. He believes Mitchell will be much improved. He better be.

Another player who comes to mind is cornerback Cortez Allen, he of the $26 million contract. Taylor insisted Allen was injured “in more ways than people can imagine” last season.

“It came to a point where I'm like, ‘Tez, man, you gotta tell them you're hurt. It's making you look bad,' ” Taylor said.

There are plenty of other questions, including the futures of several decorated veterans and outside linebacker Jason Worilds. From this vantage point, the biggest key is whether the team's past two first-round picks — Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones — make a jump. Those two need to be high-impact players.

We could discuss the intricacies of the 4-3 versus the 3-4 and the many ways in which Butler might choose to make his schematic mark. It's not that important.

Stars make a great defense.

Two of the final four teams left in the playoffs play a base 3-4, two play a 4-3. All of them, and everyone else, play a ton of sub-package football. Butler doesn't need to be a genius. He needs stars. He needs his highest-paid and highest-pedigreed players to perform at elite levels.

At some point, Jones needs to beat tackles, and Allen needs to cover receivers.

It's about the players.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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