PITTSBURGH -- It's a philosophical riddle. What happens for a linebacker when a former linebacker takes over a defense?
The Steelers did the seemingly unthinkable when they somewhat unartfully ushered defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau out the door. An icon in Pittsburgh, one whose most common modifier was and is "legendary," he was replaced by Butler, Pittsburgh's longtime linebackers coach.
Butler logged a dozen years coaching that group here. He spent four years coaching linebackers in Cleveland and, before that, 10 years playing the position in Seattle. After 11 years working under LeBeau, he hasn't wholly remade the Steelers' defense so much as tweaked it. He wants his guys playing faster, he wants them thinking less and he -- no surprise -- wants his linebackers to star. He's designed a defense, linebacker Arthur Moats said, "that a linebacker would want to play in."
By that, Moats said, he means Butler's linebackers are expected to be more instinctive aggressors than readers of an offense. Rookie outside linebacker Bud Dupree said it really means "we're allowed to be relentless," while inside linebacker Ryan Shazier said it's that "Coach Butts has given us a little more freedom."
Through three games, the linebackers have had 4.5 of the team's nine sacks (the Steelers had just 33 all of last year). There's been noticeable improvement from Week 1 to 2 to 3, even after inside linebacker Shazier -- who had a breakout 15-tackle, one-sack, one-forced fumble game against the 49ers -- was sidelined in St. Louis. And now, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger out for at least a month and likely more -- he suffered an MCL sprain and bone bruise in Sunday's win over the Rams -- the pressure is even higher on this linebacker-led defense to help keep the Steelers on course.
Which might be part of why Butler the Coordinator still spends the most time with the linebackers (who are coached by one of his former charges, Joey Porter). He reminds them this 3-4 defense is built for them to make plays, and that, if not for his lobbying, they might not be here. The Steelers' last three first-round draft picks were used on linebackers -- Jarvis Jones in 2013, Shazier in 2014, Dupree this past spring. Timmons, drafted in 2007, was Butler's first first-round linebacker, and Butler unapologetically said before the season, "I do expect more of them. I always have and I always will."
An Alabama native, he speaks with a friendly drawl and wears an easy smile. He'll bark at his players if necessary -- "He's been yelling at me since I got here," Timmons said -- and Jones said he is prone to point out how he himself might play things. He'll even, on occasion, promise he would've made a play one of his guys didn't. Promise, not necessarily prove.
"He's shown us a few clips. But just a few," Timmons said. "They didn't really have film then."
There is a lightness, a camaraderie, even though Butler, at 59, is still relatively removed in age from his players. Just two weeks ago, the linebackers had fun with an old Sports Illustrated cover of Marcus Allen that, depending on the storyteller, shows Butler about to make or miss a tackle. (Butler claims he showed his players footage of him making the tackle. James Harrison said Butler actually showed them a different play on Allen, not the one immortalized by the magazine. And Moats said there's no way Butler could make the tackle: "That's Marcus Allen.")
Butler has patiently waited to design a defense and call plays for several years now. When longtime Steelers offensive coordinator (and now Cardinals head coach) Bruce Arians swapped his "retirement" in Pittsburgh for the coordinatorship in Indianapolis, he tried to talk Butler into becoming his defensive counterpart with the Colts. Butler has had other offers over the years, but the Rooneys and head coach Mike Tomlin always insisted he'd be the coordinator here when LeBeau retired. This past year, when LeBeau made it clear he would not be retiring anytime soon, the Steelers -- as only the Steelers can -- retired him anyway, at least from their franchise.
Tomlin's loyalty to Butler was borne long ago. They met at Memphis, when Butler coached linebackers and Tomlin was a grad assistant. They both went to Arkansas State, with Tomlin the defensive backs coach under coordinator Butler. And then when Butler went to the Cleveland Browns, he convinced his bosses to give their coaching internship to Tomlin; Tomlin parlayed that into a job with Tony Dungy in Tampa.
And so, LeBeau is in Tennessee coaching Ken Whisenhunt's defense, Butler is here in Pittsburgh and the Steelers' linebackers have been put on notice: It's time for this defense to hark back to that of a recent vintage, the one where the linebacking corps makes quarterbacks run for their lives, the one that secured the franchise's last two Lombardi Trophies.
Harrison, a former Defensive Player of the Year who, at 37, is the corps' tone-setter and conscience, mock grumbled that Butler has "dumbed down" the once-vaunted Steelers defense. And when he heard that, Butler very seriously said: "That's fair." But the coach doesn't care. Where the Steelers would go into a game with 70 potential play calls a year ago, it's now about half that. Butler will still try to confuse; he likes to blitz as much as LeBeau did. But Butler tells his players it's more important they know what they're doing -- and that they do it well. That's part of why he gave Shazier a little flexibility to freelance some against the 49ers; he knows how to toe the tightrope of letting a player follow his instincts while simultaneously keeping him in line with his scheme.
It's just three games, and Thursday night, Butler's unit faces a rival Ravens squad sitting at a desperate 0-3. But this defense is coming together. These linebackers are looking promising. And Butler, who retired as the Seahawks' all-time leading tackler, is hoping every one of them has a playing career that eclipses his.