Steelers Failed To Succeed In Key Defensive Philosophy For 2016

Please check out this updated post at the link here. 

We’ve leaned pretty heavily on old Dick LeBeau playbooks throughout each season. Keith Butler has carried over concepts and philosophies from him, the man who worked under for more than a decade, many of which we’ve discussed after games in our film review.

To the latter, a key philosophy, Butler’s defense failed in 2016. And in alarming fashion.

Open up LeBeau’s playbook and you’ll quickly see the first point in his defensive philosophy.

The first letter, the first point, is holding offenses to three yards or less on first down. With thanks to our charting, we can compare how successful the Steelers have been in that regard since 2014.

Here is their “success” rate in each of those three seasons. That is, the percentage of the time the Steelers’ defense held the opponent to three or fewer yards on first down.

2014 – 53.5%
2015 – 52.7%
2016 – 29.7%

Based on our charting, opposing offenses gain 4+ yards on 70.3% of first down snaps in 2016. It’s an alarming, and sorta unexplainable, rise. Knowing the past two years worth of data, you can’t even argue that LeBeau’s philosophy was antiquated (it’s from his 2002 playbook) and unattainable because of the evolution of offenses. The rest of this article is going to be super short because honestly, I don’t know what the fix is.

Pittsburgh had no problem in 2014 and 2015, which includes Butler’s first year, obviously. Even relatively speaking, last year was bad.

We’re just looking at the numbers here and the stark contrast makes it even tougher to explain the sharp decrease. In a lot of regards, the Steelers’ defense was more successful this year and has a promising future. Broadly speaking, the Steelers have created a strong red zone defense – 5th in the NFL this season – but still struggle between the 20s. It’s something Butler will have to put up on the bulletin board in 2017 and an area we’ll definitely monitor.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Alex, this is interesting. How about continuing the analysis?

    B. thru D. And assuming 2. is create turnovers..

  • Nolrog

    The way it’s written it could be interpreted 2 ways. Create turnovers or eliminate mental errors that result in big plays for the offense (though that would seem a bit redundant to the next.)

  • Spencer Krick


  • Eddie Cruz

    Alex, obviously we’re critiquing under the assumption that Keith Butler has the same philosophy. Is it possible his philosophy is different? But the mental error goal is definitely one that needs to be addressed. The explosive plays need to stop. Good write up

  • falconsaftey43

    That’s a huge change. Almost unbelievable. Giving up way too many yards on 1st down. Is your charting detailed enough to determine if the change was more due to rushing plays or pass plays?

  • woodsworld58

    It’s called “You need a dominant Nose Tackle”! Since they’ve got to the defense that they’re running now, the two down linemen are often double teamed, and then a guard goes and picks up our undersized ILB, and they run for major yardage. To have smaller ILB, you have to keep them clean, and you can’t do it with 2 DL. You have more runners running for serious yardage because of this. Every defense has an offense that renders some of your goals unreachable. The Steelers have been getting soft on defense lately, and its time to get back to being a dominant defensive football team.

  • capehouse

    Great NFL defensive coordinators don’t sit around as LB coaches for the last quarter century.

    That’s an astounding stat you’ve unearthed though. Excellent detective work.

  • Boots

    The defense showed much improvement from the first half of the season to the second, did this hold true with this stat?

  • Bradys_Dad

    FUNDAMENTALS ! I love this analysis – great work. But when it gets down to the nuts and bolts of our defense, there were far too many missed tackles and blown assignments from the front 7 to the back end. It would be a chore but how much would these numbers skew to a favorable rating if the missed tackle analysis were weighed? This type of article and research is what makes SD the best sight for any and all things Steelers.

  • Nolrog

    I guess this would be under the eliminate big plays, but I wonder what he stat is for getting off the field when you have them at 3rd and 5 or more. I think it was much worse last year than this year, but it still seemed like they struggled in that area.

  • Ralph Wagner

    Butler coached under LeBeau for a long time so naturally he will carry on LeBeau’s way of coaching. He doesn’t know any other way to coach. Also Tomlin doesn’t have that much experience to be able to help Butler. Tomlin was what , a defensive back coach?
    It is going to be a trial and error learning experience until they get it right.

  • Uncle Rico.

    Sisterhood of the Traveling Green Dot.

    When Farrior then Foote set the defense gap integrity and big plays were never an issue. But the second Foote went down, blown fits and big plays o plenty. They tried VW briefly, then Timmon. And now Shazier. He’s smart, and maybe he grows into that role. But seems less than ideal to me since he’s often removed from the box in coverage. And he is their playmaker. Instead of being restricted by trying to see and set how 11 fit, should be free to see how he best fits and make plays. But that doesn’t fix the problem with the green dot. LeBeau use to talk about how Farrior and then Foote made him look good by their abilities to recognize being in a bad play/matchup vs a particular formation and get them into a better fit. I don’t think that is happening anymore either. Not just about getting the call and then communicating that to the 11 and getting them set.

    I like Timmons ok. And he has more football in him. But if he can’t help with this continuing get problem, I’d rather move on. VW or Matakevich might be the guy. I’m not sold on either being all-down guys. But I was never sold on Foote that way either. And didn’t fully appreciate the value he brought to the team above the neck. So I’m ok with a less than ideal physical talent at that position if he can clean up this one persistent problem.

  • falconsaftey43

    I’d agree that the run defense needs to be better, but I disagree that it’s a scheme issue (in so much that the scheme works, not necessarily that our personnel are the best at executing the scheme). The Ravens run the same 2 DL scheme (in fact they actually average only 2.17 DL on the field while Steelers average 2.31 so in base a little more). Ravens also have smaller ILBs (sub 240 lbs). Yet they had a great run defense. It can work, they just need to play better. There were lots of problems with the run defense this year. Shazier shooting the wrong gap, backup DL being moved off the ball, CBs not having contain (perhaps the biggest problem). Then there were games where they just couldn’t tackle the guy even if they had the opportunity to bring them down for a loss.


    My thoughts…we’ve all known for a while now that the DEF was going through a transition…some pcs (Hood, J. Jones, McLendon, C. Allen) failed or simply were not the answer so those areas have to be addressed again.

    DL…I think they have finally got 3 legit NFL starting caliber players…2 are pro bowl level.
    OLB…still a huge need, as much as I like Deebo, the Steelers should not still be relying on him.
    SS…Davis looks like he’s a keeper.
    CB…Burns also looks like a keeper, but still need more help as Gay is now a liability

    In short, the team has lacked talent on DEF. Labeau at the end and Butler from the outset have been working with subpar talent relative to Steeler teams of the past. While I think most of us would have like to have seen a more aggressive DEF scheme in the AFCCG, it’s still a work in progress. Hopefully they can add a younger edge, player and a CB that can play at this level.

    Bottom line…Colbert/Tomlin need to hit on this draft much like they did last year.

  • RickM

    According to NFL official results, we improved from 21st to 12th defensively in yards allowed per game dropping from 363 to 342. The stat above would mean we improved dramatically from 2015 to 2016 on either 2nd or 3rd down, or both. I don’t think better red zone play would account for enough yards to offset the incredible 1st-down decline above.

    And giving up more yards on 1st down traditionally makes 2nd and 3rd down easier for opposing offenses…so our 2016 improvement on 2nd and 3rd down would be even more surprising. You charted it so I believe it. But, it sure goes against the NFL norm. I guess our 2016 D just came up bigger after the 1st down gains. Do you think an increased number of big plays on 1st down might have skewed the average?

  • Craig M

    Well said.

  • Craig M

    Averages are Mode, Mean and Median- they can sometimes distort/ pinpoint issues. We started off the season w/ one type of D philosophy then switched it by pressuring the QB more, using Harrisons strength at that position. We also blitzed less at the start of the season in relation to our D scheme from the previous two seasons (IMO). Besides needing a really decent OLB for the future I support “Uncle Rico” in that we miss the mental, on the field, D play calling ability/ alignment of the likes of Foote/ Farrior. But, that being said- very interesting point of perspective from our Ace, off the field observer, uncle Kozora. 🙂

  • Eddie Cruz

    He was the Viking defensive coordinator when we hired him I thought

  • Eddie Cruz

    Uncle Rico always knowsn what’s going on

  • mem359

    That’s a flawed argument for two reasons.
    1- Butler had many opportunities to coach for other teams. He was a LB coach by choice (to stay with the Steelers), not because he lacked options.
    2- If the guy ahead of you is All-Pro level, doesn’t matter how “great” you are. Aaron Rogers started zero games his first 3 years, sitting around as a backup didn’t mean he couldn’t be great.

  • Alex Kozora

    Maybe bu for something like B, I can’t quantify that. At least, not easily.

  • Alex Kozora

    Of course, it doesn’t have to be the exact same but we’ve shown a lot of carry over. Besides, it’s not like LeBeau’s philosophy is that special, to be honest. No defense is trying to give up six yards on first down.

  • Alex Kozora

    I can look into that. Obviously, pass plays are going to have a lower success rate in general for the defense.

  • Alex Kozora

    Well when you’re in sub-package 70% of the time, that dominant nose tackle is going to spend a lot of time on the sidelines.

    And it didn’t seem to hurt them in 2015. Or 2014…

  • Alex Kozora

    Good point. I will look.

  • Alex Kozora

    He was. Tomlin has plenty of experience.

  • Alex Kozora

    Maybe so but I don’t see that many communication breakdowns (they are, of course, hard to see as an outsider).

    I don’t think Shazier is restricted one but though. They let him play fast.

    And as the numbers show, the prior two years – 2014 and 2015 – looked good. Then it tanked this season. That wouldn’t gel with your theory.

  • Alex Kozora

    I’m not trying to claim that red zone play has anything to do with first down success/lack of it. I was merely pointing out that the Steelers defense is really strong in the red zone – to Butler’s credit – but has a lot of issues outside of the 20s.

    I mean, the number did drop by only 21 yards per game. You can do better there and still have a poor success rate if you’re allowing a lot of 4 to 5 yard gains on first down. They still count against and aren’t going to inflate the yards against number.

  • falconsaftey43

    yeah, more looking for what changed. Did they suddenly start giving up a lot of 3+ yard runs on 1st down that they didn’t before (what I suspect happened mostly) or did the completion % on 1st down go up a lot, etc.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    But could rate where the Steelers were in rankings for big plays given up and tackling stats

  • RickM

    That’s not really what I’m getting at. A 2016 first-down decline like that would require a significant 2016 improvement on 2nd or 3rd down, as we gave up less overall yards per game. Maybe because teams were so successful on first down they didn’t need to go down the field as often on 2nd and 3rd down. It’s just strange that we could be that unsuccessful on first down, yet allow less yards overall. Success on first down normally correlates with easier 2nd and 3rd downs for the O. No biggie.

  • capehouse

    He turned down an offer for the Dolphins back in 2010 with Tony Sparano as head coach. Yuck! Then the Steelers put some clause in his contract so he couldn’t interview with the Cardinals and his golf buddy and Steeler hater Ken Whisenhunt. Apparently Butler also turned down the position for the Cardinals a couple years before that because he was having hip surgery. So there’s your opportunities.

    I agree it’s a flawed argument, but doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Of course the Pats game left a sour taste in my mouth. It’s what we’re left with and it was an absolute head scratcher of a game plan that left me wondering about Butler’s capabilities as the leader of our defense.

  • Consistent

    Is it because teams don’t just line up and run on 1st down w/any consistency now? 1st down commonly looks like 3rd and 5 type lineups on the field…it takes the big bodies(NT)off the field and spreads the defense for the QB to get a good read

  • Robert E Lil

    YES! Great work Alex. Truly
    The defense is getting WORSE not better. I agree with some other posts that in today’s NFL 1st down is a passing down (as are 2nd and 3rd). The Steelers must change their defensive philosophy. Referencing the list of objectives they need to rethink the ‘B’ and ‘C’ lines and be more willing to give up the big play and instead challenge their athletes to win one on one battles at the line

  • Disqussant

    Agree it’s not easy to quantify eliminating mental errors. First thing that comes to mind is age/experience/leadership qualities. It says a lot that the team relies on young Shaz.

  • Disqussant

    Don’t want to be an a$$, but “Of” shouldn’t be capitalized here. It’s a two-letter preposition.

  • jlingo

    Really? Would love to see the full list of priorities. Nothing dynamic in this first point. Seems like a pretty generic list actually.

  • Jeff Burton

    The problem with Butler isn’t personnel as it was with Coach LeBeau his last few seasons. Butler is a TERRIBLE play caller. He panics easily and his solution is always to go back to his totally ineffectual and outdated cover packages. And even with his incredible caution he’s unable to spot tendencies and counter them like the ridiculous amount of times Chris Hogan was uncovered during the AFC championship. Also his insistence that Sean Davis could play cover in slot shows an inability to evaluate talent. Anybody who watched any college film on Davis could see he was a nightmare in coverage. It shouldn’t have taken almost to mid-season to see that Davis needed to be an eyes front, in the box safety which is where he begun to shine now. I’m not a Butler believer and I’m beginning to think if this young and talented Steeler ‘D’ gels it will be in spite of him and not because of him.

  • Uncle Rico.

    In 2010 they gave up one run of over 20 yards. Until 2013 they were always at or near the top in the league for giving up fewest big plays.

    2010 39 passes > 20yds, 14 pass > 30yds, 8 pass > 40yds
    2011 34 pass > 20yds (8runs), 8 pass > 30yds(2run), 2 pass > 40yds (1run)
    2012 33 pass > 20yds (5runs), 11 pass > 30yds (2 runs), 2 pass > 40yds (1run)

    Foote gets hurt late in first game of 2013

    2013 47 pass > 20yds (6runs), 17 pass > 30yds (4runs), 13 pass > 40yds (4runs)
    2014 53 pass > 20yds (11runs), 28 pass > 30yds (3runs), 15 pass > 40yds (1run)
    2015 56 pass > 20yds (6runs), 25 pass > 30yds (3runs), 13 pass > 40yds (1run)
    2016 45 pass > 20yds (10runs), 22 pass > 30yds (6runs), 11 pass > 40yds (3run)

    As soon as Foote went down big plays went up 50% and hasn’t really gotten better. I have no way of knowing how many bad fits he got them out and I don’t know if it’s one player here or there blowing their fits or if they didn’t get the play communicated clearly. But I do know it all went to crap for them exactly when Foote went down. I suspect it’s related. They had no plan in place in case something happened to Foote. Finally settled on Timmons for a while. If he was doing it well, he’d still be doing it. Because having Shazier do it isn’t ideal. He has great instincts and plays fast. But how much faster could he play if he had 2 keys instead of 11? Where he doesn’t have to worry about if everyone is in the right set and where the defense stress points are and if he should check to something else. None of that helps accelerates his play. And like I said his responsibilities often takes him outside the box. How well can he see and communicate if he’s not centrally located? Ideally Timmons would set it. And since they took that away from him, I can only assume it was too big/much for him. Maybe it’s improving and will improve under Shazier. But it’s still far from good. And further from ideal.