From Mark Kaboly, Trib Live:
Keith Butler doesn’t want to be known as 3-4 defense, he really doesn’t.
He doesn’t want to be labeled as a 4-3 team, either, even though he’s shown that look at times during the preseason.
He doesn’t even want to be known as a Cover 2/zone defense, despite dedicating considerable practice time to the scheme over the past month.
Since taking over the Steelers defense from Dick LeBeau in January, Butler has had his mind set on one thing when it comes to restructuring a once dominant unit: How multiple can he make it?
Through a month of training camp, the answer is … very.
That will continue into Sunday’s third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field, a 1 p.m. kickoff against arguably the best offense in the NFL, fronted by reigning MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“We just can’t be a 3-4 team and can’t just be a 4-3 team,” Butler said. “I don’t think you can get around that. Offenses are multiple, so you have to do what you have to do to stop them. In order to do that, you try to match up your people with their people.”
If that means a four-man front, then so be it. If that means Cover 2, then fine.
“Nobody really cares how we do it as long as we do it,” Cam Heyward said. “We are going to mix things up so offenses can’t get a bead on us.”
The defense fell on some hard times under LeBeau the past two years. After finishing No. 1 four times in a stretch of six years from 2007-12, the Steelers plummeted to 13th and 18th the past two seasons.
Some of that can be directly related to aging personnel. Others are convinced that teams figured out LeBeau’s zone blitzing scheme. There’s probably truth to both.
Although nobody would go as far as to label LeBeau’s defense predictable, the intricacies were well-known — three down linemen with at least one linebacker blitzing, nickel unit on passing situations, a tackle-the-catch philosophy in the backfield, don’t let anything get behind you in the secondary and a lot of Cover 3.
“We are not strictly anything,” Butler said.
Last week’s preseason game against the Jaguars showed that. When the majority of the first team was in the game, Butler was as multiple as you can get.
In 28 plays, the Steelers were in a three-man front 16 times, a four-man front six times, and the nickel six times. Only three times did Butler call the same front on back-to-back plays.
Butler also called two zone blitzes — one that had Steve McLendon and the other rookie L.T. Walton dropping into coverage — had Antwon Blake blitz from the corner and used the LeBeau staple crossfire blitz with the two inside linebackers twice. It appeared that he went out of his way to be as multiple as he could.
“At this level, if you do too much of anything, you expose yourself to be attacked,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Butler said he can mix-and-match his defenses better than a lot of other teams because of his outside linebackers. The Steelers’ philosophy, for the most part, is to draft college 4-3 defensive ends and convert them to 3-4 outside linebackers.
“They know how to drop into coverage and have been taught that by the 3-4 system,” Butler said. “You have the same type of coverage techniques than they do in 3-4. A lot of teams try to play fire zones and stand up a big defensive end, and he is a fish out of water. Our guys have done it.”
Butler knows the Packers will provide a test like nothing they’ve seen so far. The Packers, who were one of two teams who averaged more than 30 points per game last year, will provide Butler with a better feel of where his defense is at this point.
“What we will get this week is stuff that will stress the new defenses that we put in,” Butler said. “We need that stress to be able to coach off of it and correct it.
“As a coach, you have to determine what they can do. If they are making a lot of mental mistakes you have to simplify it a little bit. We are in the process of seeing what we can and can’t do.”
The thing that Butler has been trying to determine throughout the preseason is if his unit can provide pressure by rushing only four. Last season, the Steelers struggled creating any kind of pressure, let alone sacks.
The Steelers finished in the bottom third in the NFL in sacks with 33, which was also their fewest in 26 years. Hurries/pressures — a stat compiled by the Steelers coaching staff — dipped 32 percent from 151 to 103. The Steelers had at least 139 hurries/pressures every year since 2006.
That’s one reason why Butler has changed the philosophy along the defensive line from two-gap (read and react) to one-gap (up-the-field).
Butler’s reasoning is simple.
“What the league started to do is run these bombs on first and second downs,” he said. “They are locking up everybody and going deep as a consequence, so you can’t sit there and play read defense all of the time because if you do, you will never get a pass rush, and the quarterback will have all day to throw it.”
The Steelers allowed 30 touchdown passes, six quarterbacks to throw for more than 300 yards — including Andrew Luck’s 400 — and 15 passes of at least 40 yards last season.
“We have to find out if we are good enough to rush the passer with four guys,” Butler said. “If we can’t, then you end up putting your corners under stress, and you can’t do that all of the time.”