Keith Butler is finally getting his chance to run the Steelers defense after the team promoted the longtime linebackers coach to defensive coordinator in January. The team did not renew the contract of Dick LeBeau, the 77-year-old Hall of Famer.
Butler entertained the thought of leaving, but always wound up spurning other — sometimes more lucrative — opportunities to stay in Pittsburgh. The wait paid off and now, it’s Butler’s job to restore a once-proud Steelers defense back to prominence.
“To me, if you’re going to coach in this game, you want to win a Super Bowl,” said Butler, who joined the team in 2003. “I always thought the best chance for me to win a Super Bowl as a coordinator would be (in Pittsburgh).”
Pittsburgh finished in the top five in total defense 11 times under LeBeau, including five No. 1 overall rankings and two Super Bowl titles. The last two seasons, however, were a struggle as the Steelers won the AFC North almost in spite of a defense that finished 18th in yards allowed, its worst ranking in 25 years.
The youth movement LeBeau tried to piece together is now almost complete. Former stars Troy Polamalu, Brett Keisel and Ike Taylor are gone, replaced by a young core centered around defensive end Cam Heyward and linebackers Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones and Lawrence Timmons, who are all former first-round picks.
“That’s part of it, that’s football,” said outside linebackers coach Joey Porter, promoted when Butler moved up. “Those guys can’t play forever. There are always going to be new guys and now it’s their turn to make their legacy.”
The 59-year-old Butler is ready to do the same.
He plans to carry over a similar approach and familiar elements of previous Steelers defenses, but also admitted there will be adjustments and differences, most notably up front.
“Those guys are talented guys and we have to use them too,” Butler said. “We can’t always let them try to take people off the linebackers. We have a lot of draft choices in that front seven and we have to let them play football.”
Butler said Mike Tomlin has given him free reign over the defense, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t welcome feedback from his head coach.
“I’ve known him for a long time and I look for his input,” said Butler, who coached with Tomlin at Memphis and Arkansas State before the two reunited in Pittsburgh. “It would be foolish for me not to get advice from him when his expertise is defense.”
LeBeau, now an assistant with the Tennessee Titans, was beloved by his players and often looked at as a father figure. Butler, who has coached Steelers linebackers to 10 Pro Bowl selections and seven AP-All-Pro first or second-team honors, carries the same respect from his players using a straightforward, honest approach.
“It’s important that they know I care about them and want them to be successful,” said Butler, who spent 10 seasons playing in Seattle and ranks second on the team’s all-time tackles list. “I’m going to be fair and honest and that’s the biggest thing.”
It worked for Porter, who spent four seasons playing for Butler.
Now, he’s serving under Butler. It’s all a part of the plan.
“He’s been preparing himself for this situation for awhile,” Porter said. “He knows the ins and outs of the defense. The opportunity has been waiting for him and now it’s his. He’s definitely ready for it.”