Steelers’ pass rush revived under Keith Butler

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin isn’t one to mince words.

While meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebackers during organized team activities this spring, Tomlin pointed to the 51 sacks the defense produced the previous time the franchise won the Super Bowl in 2009.

Then he pointed to the 33 it managed last season, which ended with an AFC North title but a quick exit in the wild-card round.

The way Tomlin figured it, that number needed to go up. Way up.

Keith Butler was listening. The only real mandate Tomlin gave Butler when he replaced Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator in January was to find a way to generate more pressure, namely the kind that ends with the quarterback on the ground or the Steelers running the other way with the ball.

Four games into Butler’s tenure, the results are promising.

The Steelers (2-2) already have 14 sacks, fourth best in the league. Yes, it’s early but one thing has become readily apparent: the blitz is back in the place they used to call “Blitzburgh.”

“I think that’s the Steelers personality,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “We have the guys … why sit back and wait if we can get after you?”

It’s not just one player or one group doing the job. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt has 3½ sacks. Rookie linebacker Bud Dupree has a pair.

Safety Will Allen picked up the first one of his 12-year career in the opener against New England and James Harrison’s 37-year-old legs were still fresh enough to chase down Baltimore’s Joe Flacco in a 23-20 overtime loss to the Ravens last week.

About the only person Butler has not sent into the opposing backfield is outside linebackers coach Joey Porter.

“Every week is something new in regard to what coach Butz wants to call it, his flavor of the week,” linebacker Arthur Moats said.

One that seems awfully familiar to San Diego coach Mike McCoy, whose team hosts the Steelers on Monday night.

“It’s a traditional Pittsburgh Steelers defense,” McCoy said. “They’re very physical. They get after you. It’s the way they play, that’s been there a long time.”

Maybe not so much recently. Pittsburgh finished 18th in yards allowed and points allowed last season, sending the brilliant LeBeau out on a somewhat sour note. Butler remains faithful to LeBeau’s philosophy while adding a bit of swashbuckling gambler.

The Steelers have spent most of the current decade trying to stockpile talent at linebacker, spending a first-round pick on the position in each of the past three drafts.

While outside linebacker Jarvis Jones continues to search for consistency, Dupree and 2014 pick Ryan Shazier appear to have picked things up quickly.

Tuitt, taken a round after Shazier last year, is blossoming now that Butler is asking him to simply beat the man in front of him instead of occupying as many blocks as possible to free up the linebackers to go get the ball.

“He’s wreaking havoc,” defensive end Cam Heyward said.

He’s hardly the only one. Members of the secondary are darting pell-mell into the backfield too.

“There’s so many guys contributing to the effort, it makes sure we always have pressure on the field,” Heyward said.

All that aggressiveness does have a downside. Pittsburgh gave up 190 yards rushing against the Ravens, some of them on traps and draws that saw a Baltimore running back dart through an opening left by a Steeler intent on getting to the quarterback without taking care of his assignment first.

“That’s definitely the part that gets us the most,” Moats said. “We can identify the runs when they happen.”

Stopping them, apparently is another matter. Both Moats and Heyward chastised themselves and their teammates for poor tackling, saying there’s too much grabbing and not enough wrapping up.

Feel free to call it growing pains for a group that has just one starter older than 30, though the Steelers would prefer to speed up the learning process.

“First and second down is where we’re getting gashed,” Heyward said. “We’ve got to have better focus and a better idea of the situation we’re in … but we also want to make sure quarterbacks can’t get back there and dissect us. It’s a balance we’re still trying to get to.”

NOTES: LB Ryan Shazier (shoulder), CB Cortez Allen (knee), TE Matt Spaeth (hand) and WR Markus Wheaton (ankle) all practiced on Thursday and should play against the Chargers barring a late setback.

Chargers notes

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Center Chris Watt was practicing on Thursday and that could lead to a new look along the offensive line.

Watt missed Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns with a groin injury. Trevor Robinson started in his place and received positive reviews.

“We love Trevor,” Chargers offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “When he stepped in at the end of last year we really realized that we had a winner. And he’s tough. He is the right guy.”

The Chargers might move Watt to left guard, with Robinson staying at center for Monday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Chargers’ left side of the offensive line remains in a state of flux.

Left tackle King Dunlap (concussion) and left guard Orlando Franklin (ankle) didn’t practice again on Thursday. Neither played against the Browns and their status is unclear for Monday.

So with Watt rounding into shape and Robinson impressing the coaches, a switch could be on the horizon.

“With Chris it’s always nice to have a guy like him back out there,” coach Mike McCoy said.

Kenny Wiggins started at left guard on Sunday, but that was before Watt returned to practice.

“Only time will tell with that to see how we are doing and how healthy we are,” McCoy said.

McCoy prides his offensive linemen on being versatile. With Watt, a second-year pro who’s played guard since being at Notre Dame, it could be a smooth transition.

“We are going to move guys around,” McCoy said. “Whatever the best combination of five guys are, week to week, we will evaluate that. There are a number of things to come into play.”

Which could leave Watt at left guard.

“He’s played it before, both spots here,” McCoy said. “He has that position flexibility we are always talking about it and he does a nice job for us.”

No matter its makeup, the offensive line will be challenged. The Steelers have 14 sacks, fourth best in the NFL. That’s the most sacks they’ve had through four games since getting 15 in 2008.

“It’s tradition,” McCoy said. “They’ve done an outstanding job for a number of years. It’s the history of their defense the way they get after you — physical against the run and a number of different ways to get after the quarterback. This is what they’ve always done since everyone has ever watched them.”

In addition to Dunlap and Franklin, others not practicing were: wide receivers Jacoby Jones (ankle) and Steve Johnson (hamstring), cornerback Craig Mager (hamstring) and linebacker Tourek Williams (leg).

comments powered by Disqus