All it takes is one bad game for the entire house of cards to come crashing down—or at least that seems to be how it is in the minds of some fans.
I am speaking about the vaunted ‘Dick LeBeau defense’, and now that we’ve been through essentially a whole season of below par defense, it’s clearly time for the old man to move on so that the next old man can take his place.
Or so goes the line of thinking.
Because it’s LeBeau that prevents younger players from taking the field. His defense is too complex for neophytes to understand, leaving less talented, aging veterans to go out there and get exposed by the more talented offenses in the league.
This is the storyline every time the Steelers lose to the New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, or whichever team Peyton Manning is quarterbacking at the time.
You know, as though these elite offenses don’t embarrass defenses of all performance levels on nearly a weekly basis between September and February every year.
So it’s time for LeBeau to step aside and let linebackers coach Keith Butler take over. Surely he will simplify the defense and get his young players on the field.
Just ask Jason Worilds. Even though he was a second-round pick, it was difficult for him to receive any playing time unless there was an injury in front of him or if there was some mop-up duty to take care of late in a blowout.
One gets the sense that Jarvis Jones was forced upon Butler last year, and when Jones received a concussion, Butler took the opportunity to remove him from the starting lineup, knowing that he wasn’t quite ready yet.
Ryan Shazier’s situation is a bit different, of course. Shazier faces no real significant impediment toward entering the starting lineup as a rookie—which is something that Butler has formerly boasted about never happening since he’s been with the team.
Whenever LeBeau’s defense slips up, there is that vocal minority crying for, essentially, the next man up. This is the same thing the players face whenever they slip up. The next man up is always the better answer because he’s not the man that they just saw make a mistake.
But to think that the defense will change significantly, either in schematics or in general philosophy, would be a mistake.
Like LeBeau, Butler has a three-level understanding of the defense, even though he is the linebackers coach. He knows what he needs from the defensive line for his linebackers to excel, and he knows what his linebackers need to do to help the secondary keep the receivers in check down the field. This is evident in the rare instances that he is interviewed. Nobody gives up answers so freely as he does.
Butler has been working with LeBeau for a solid decade now. He not only knows LeBeau’s system, he runs LeBeau’s system. He helps tweak LeBeau’s system every season.
It’s his system now, and it will likely be the Steelers’ core defensive system until they hire a new defensive coordinator from outside the organization, as they did on the offensive side of the ball with Todd Haley. In other words, when the day comes that LeBeau hangs it up, don’t expect much to change.