Steelers defense looks to solve communication breakdowns
For all that went wrong defensively for the Pittsburgh Steelers during their season-opening 33-3 loss in New England, perhaps their defensive coordinator encapsulated it best in a way only he can.
“We busted some daggum assignments,” Keith Butler said Thursday.
When asked what went wrong against the Patriots, cornerback Mike Hilton said: “Really, just our communication, especially when they up-tempoed us. We kind of looked a little shook and kind of lost out there.”
The defensive communication — or lack thereof — has been a focal point of criticism for this Steelers team, and rightfully so, Tim Benz writes.https://t.co/mJoJCKvx62
— Tribune-ReviewSports (@TribSports) October 9, 2018
A 42-37 home-opener loss last season to the Kansas City Chiefs exposed the Steelers’ defensive communication issues.
In 2017, allowing big plays plagued the defense all season. Many were chalked up to miscommunication.
When the Steelers opened with a loss at New England in 2015, part of the blame was a “lack of communication.”
The good news, as Butler sees it, is the Steelers traditionally get more in sync as seasons progress. Butler believes that is true across the league as practice time has become increasingly scarce in an era of player protection.
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and sometimes those guys that are young guys, first and second year, maybe third year, you can’t afford for them to miss time in the communication arena,” Butler said. “That happens, and does it happen every year? Probably so, to a certain extent.”
Six of the 13 defensive players most deployed in the opener are either newcomers, rookies or first-, second- or third-year players. That includes rookie linebacker Devin Bush and AAF alumnus Kameron Kelly, a safety who was making his regular-season debut.
Kelly was, at best, a part of the communication issues (at worst, he was the sole offender) on a 58-yard touchdown reception by New England’s Philip Dorsett.
Whatever level of blame is attributable to Kelly, the issues could be eliminated because Kelly is expected to serve a backup role when Sean Davis returns to the lineup. A fourth-year starting free safety, Davis has returned to practice after missing the opener because of an ankle injury.
“It helps quite a bit because even though we played a new defense against these guys, Sean has been out there and done that,” Butler said. “He knows what we expect of him. Him and (starting strong safety Terrell Edmunds) have played together a lot. To me, what’s big is our defense playing together and knowing each other well enough, knowing that if something happens, we can make an adjustment.”
In searching for answers as to what went wrong against New England, Bud Dupree credited the savvy of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Some suggested it was the fault of linebacker T.J. Watt, who made his debut as the defensive on-field playcaller.
Others contend the coaching staff has made things too complicated, an argument Butler takes seriously.
“We always look at that,” Butler said. “We’re not so smug to think that we can be too smart as coaches sometimes. We looked at every angle that we can, and try to gauge what our guys can handle.
“Sometimes we’re right, and sometimes we’re wrong. We’ve got to be able to communicate and do the things that we ask them to do. Everything draws up on the board real good — but what happens on the field is maybe sometimes a little bit different.”
Talk about The More Things Change…
Mike Hilton referenced communication as an issue with the Steelers defense
"Especially when they uptempo-ed us, we kind of looked a little shook and kind of lost out there."
— Chris Adamski (@C_AdamskiTrib) September 9, 2019
Playing at home will help, Watt said. But Watt said keeping things simple would be beneficial, too.
“To simplify things, just so we are not all on different pages,” Watt said, “and trying to play as fast and smart as we know we can.
“We know we are a quick defense. We know we can play fast and at an elite level. It’s just a matter of all being on the same page and all knowing what everyone’s got.”
Terminology, Butler said, is not an issue.
“It’s not daggum Chinese to them, you know what I mean?” Butler said. “When they talk to each other, they know it’s English. They know what the heck is going on. So that’s what we’ve tried to get out of them, and I think we’ll get it.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .