Today's Pigskin

20 September 2015: Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butlerin action during a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, PA.
Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh slowly but surely changing the way it plays defense

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire
NFLShop.com - NFL Jerseys and Gear

Is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense going through a huge change? The answer is yes, but let’s not jump to massive conclusions quite yet.

Either way, it’s a very interesting development in the Steel City.

Lets investigate.

Dick LeBeau was Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator for many years and he did a fantastic job.

This is, in a nutshell, how Pittsburgh played defense for so long under LeBeau: The Steelers were a pure 3-4 team with a big powerful nose tackle like Casey Hampton or Joel Steed to anchor the middle of the line. Flanking the nose tackle were two power ends that were always in the 6-foot-5, 300 pound range. Aaron Smith is the ideal prototypical example of such a player and was great in this capacity.

For the most part, if these front three players could control the line of scrimmage and force the offense to block them with four or even five offensive linemen, running on the Steelers would then become nearly impossible.

And that worked very well. After shutting down the run on early downs, LeBeau’s exotic blitz packages came into play.

This is what LeBeau believed in and implemented so well for so long, even though we must consider that the game has changed and now every defense in the league plays with more defensive backs and more sub package football overall.

Nowadays, Pittsburgh does have a big space-eating nose tackle in Daniel McCullers, but he doesn’t play all that many snaps. Instead, Pittsburgh drafted Javon Hargrave in the third round.

While Hargrave is low to the ground and has a thick, powerful body, he has far more penetrating skills than his successors on the nose and should, in time, become a valuable interior pass-rusher. While Cameron Hayward and Stephon Tuitt have similar body types to the defensive ends before them in Pittsburgh, they’re also much better penetrators and attackers and are asked to do far more than guys like Smith and Brett Keisel.

In fact, Hayward and Tuitt very well could be the Steelers’ best pass-rushers right now, although James Harrison never seems to age and is still doing well in that department.

The outside linebackers are almost always former college defensive ends who could rush the passer. That really hasn’t changed at all, although the players LeBeau had at these critical spots were far better pass-rushers/players than what is currently lining up at outside linebacker for the Steelers. But it should be noted that there was a stretch when Pittsburgh was one of the only teams employing a true 3-4 and they got what were called “Tweeners” like Joey Porter and Jason Gildon much later in the draft than their talents and skills would indicate.

Such players would be drafted much earlier in today’s NFL.

At inside linebacker, Pittsburgh has traditionally had an oversized, run-stuffing power player as well as more of a run-and-hit ‘backer. Levon Kirkland is the best example anyone can find for the power player, while someone like Kendrell Bell exemplifies his counterpart.

This hasn’t changed a whole lot for the Steelers with the exception that both positions emphasize movement, speed and athleticism more than run-stuffing ability. Lawrence Timmons is the new Kirkland and the ultra-athletic Ryan Shazier is the new Bell.

One thing that hasn’t changed in Pittsburgh is that linebackers overall (going back to Jack Ham and Jack Lambert) are of extreme importance and the Steelers use high draft picks on that position.

But a lot has changed in the secondary of late.

Well, to be more specific, the coverages and tactics Pittsburgh has employed this season are implying a lot of change here.

Remember, Mike Tomlin comes from a very strong Tampa-2 background, a scheme that predominantly rushes four and has a bend-but-don’t-break style that keeps everything in front of the defenders and forces quarterbacks and offenses to sustain long drives.

Well, that is very much what Pittsburgh has done through two weeks in 2016.

12 September 2016: Steelers Stephon Tuitt (91) celebrates with Ryan Shazier (50) after his long interception return. The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Washington Redskins 38-16 on Monday Night Football at FedEx Field in Landover, MD. (Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire)

Under LeBeau, the Steelers became famous for their zone blitz principles. They did play a lot of off-coverage with their cornerbacks and didn’t use premium resources on corners. Instead they wanted cornerbacks who were smart, understood their complex system — with a lot of matchup zone principles that is not learned overnight — and they wanted cornerbacks who would come up and tackle well against the run and pass.

Keith Butler is now Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator and is a direct disciple of LeBeau as the Steelers linebacker coach for quite some time before taking over for his mentor. Butler clearly has a strong background in what was an institution in Pittsburgh’s defense for so long. Last year, he simplified things somewhat, though, and the results were impressive.

The Steelers created more big plays, they made fewer mental errors and they trusted their overall athletic ability more than the scheme.

It absolutely must be noted that the Steelers have flooded the defense with high picks and premium athletes over the past three draft classes — using their first and second round pick in all three drafts on defense as well as this year’s third rounder on Hargrave.

And unlike under LeBeau, young players are getting on the field sooner for Pittsburgh, although some of that certainly had to do with the Steelers incumbent starters just being too good to be replaced by youngsters for many of those years.

Defensive change is slowly but surely coming to Pittsburgh, and that isn’t a bad thing.

Pittsburgh slowly but surely changing the way it plays defense

More of Your Steelers with Locked on Steelers Podcast


To Top