Following the selection of Miami linebacker Sean Spence in the third round of the draft this past April, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker coach Keith Butler answered several questions related to the roles of both the BUCK and MACK linebackers in the Steelers 3-4 defense.
The answers that Butler gave insinuated that there was almost a merging of the two positions being as most of the league no longer uses a fullback, and as many offenses are going to a more spread type offense with some featuring the new hybrid tight ends that cause matchup problems for inside linebackers.
David Todd, my co-host on The Terrible Podcast, interviewed Butler on Wednesday for ESPN 970 Radio and asked him if indeed there is now a less of a distinction in the two roles of the two inside positions. “There is and that\’s a pretty good assumption on your part in that they have grown together a little bit because of the way we play our front,” said Butler. “It would be better for us if our guys can play more than one or two positions for us, because at some point in time, you\’re going to have to do that during the season.”
“I mean this is my 10th season and I don\’t know if there\’s a year that\’s gone by that we didn\’t have to move somebody around and I want to be able to move those guys around without it being the first time they\’ve done it,” continued Butler. “So we\’re doing a little bit more of it here in training camp to see what our guys are capable of doing and I think they\’ve done pretty good with the adjustment and I think it helps him learn the defense better.”
David quickly asked if he was thinking of one player in particular, or all of them. “All of them,” said Butler. “Especially the young guys, Sly (Stevenson Sylvester) and Brandon Johnson Moving Larry Foote and Lawrence (Timmons) and letting them play different positions. I flipped them around yesterday. They\’re going to be like that and I\’m going to do that every three days and let them play those positions. When you do that, you know what everybody else is doing around you. If you know what everybody else is doing around you, you know where your help is.”
Butler was later asked if the defensive calls made by a linebacker on defense where made by a certain linebacker position such as the BUCK. Butler replied, “It\’s been positionally, but it\’s universal and we can change that. I want to get everybody used to making those calls, so if something happens and we have to make an adjustment, then it will be old hat to them”
When you combine the comments that Butler made on draft day with the comments he made on Wednesday, you can indeed see that goal moving forward is to have both inside linebackers possess the same skill set and have the ability to be able to play both on the strong and weak sides. While the strong side, the BUCK, will likely still be responsible for the defensive calls, both inside linebackers must be able to take on blockers, blitz and be good in good coverage when it calls for it. A more universal inside linebacker, if you will. The clarification made by Butler now makes the selection of Spence easier to understand, as he likely will learn both the BUCK and the MACK roles over time as it relates to different looks the defense will see.
At the same time, the flipping around in training camp of Foote, Lawrence Timmons, Stevenson Sylvester and Johnson is an effort to make them all universal as well. Both Sylvester and Johnson have even taken reps at the left outside linebacker spot thus far in camp to help provide even more versatility. Keep in mind that the outside linebacker numbers on the roster are currently diminished with both James Harrison and Jason Worilds still on PUP. That outside group was even short one more on Wednesday as LaMarr Woodley was given a day off. That would further explain the need for Sylvester to take reps outside, something he has not done a lot of since being drafted.
You can listen the complete interview with Butler below and I highly suggest it as there is quite a bit of good information included in it.