There’s much to sort out on defense heading into 2018, from how effective Bud Dupree will be at right outside linebacker and how T.J. Watt will take to playing on the left side, to which safety plays in the box and which one covers center field, to how often and how well the Steelers will deploy six and perhaps even seven defensive backs at a time.
This much has already been resolved: The way last season ended can’t happen again.
“You remember that crap like it’s yesterday,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler acknowledged, recalling Jaguars 45, Steelers 42 last Jan. 14 at Heinz Field.
Seven of the points the Jaguars scored while ushering the Steelers out of the playoffs were attributable to a sack-strip-scoop-score in the second quarter.
There wasn’t much the defense could have done about that.
The rest was devastating. Jacksonville ran 35 times for 164 yards, averaged 4.7 yards per rush and carried the ball across the goal line four times. Quarterback Blake Bortles dropped back 31 times and wasn’t sacked. He ended up attempting 26 passes that produced 214 yards and rushing five times for 35 more. The Jaguars went 8-for-14 on third downs (57 percent), 5-for-5 in the red zone and 3-for-3 in goal-to-go scenarios. And the Steelers’ defense never managed to take the ball away all day.
“I know it bothers me,” Butler continued. “I know it bothers our players. We know what happened in the game, we didn’t stop the run and we let ’em score too much.”
Added outside linebackers coach Joey Porter: “To say it didn’t leave a sour taste in your month, it definitely did. That type of game is what the Steelers are based on playing. You’re going to come here and try to run the ball? That’s what we want, that’s our strength, that’s what the Steelers are known for, and it didn’t go our way.
“Everybody has a bitter taste in their mouth, coaches included. It’s something that we want to address and something that we’re going to address and I think we have the pieces and the tools to do it.”
The initial response hasn’t been to tear up the defensive playbook, but the Steelers have made and are contemplating changes.
Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley have been added to the staff.
Safety Morgan Burnett, safety Terrell Edmunds and linebacker Jon Bostic reinforcements added through veteran free agency and the draft.
The Steelers participate in the 2018 minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
And the schematic tweaks are either in the experimentation or contemplation stages through Day Two of mandatory veteran minicamp, the most obvious of those being Dupree and Watt switching sides from what was considered last season’s base defense alignment.
“The quarterback can’t see Bud on the right side,” of the defense, Butler explained of the decision to rush Dupree from the blind side. “He can see him on the left side. To me, that’s to our advantage, (the quarterback) can’t step up necessarily in the pocket.
“What Bud did too much of last year, in my opinion, is he got past the quarterback. To me, you’re useless when you’re past the quarterback and trying to rush the quarterback. Now, he won’t be as useless behind the quarterback because he can work back a little bit or he can go up and under (the offensive tackle) where the quarterback doesn’t see him. And T.J., he’ll be a little bit more disciplined in terms of how he’s trying to contain the quarterback and constrict the pocket around him.”
Whatever adjustments the Steelers wind up making in whatever personnel configurations, they’ll rely first and foremost on a defensive staple.
“Just knowing your assignment, knowing where you’re supposed to be, trusting the guy next to you, making sure that nobody does anything selfish that allows these gaps and holes to happen,” Porter said.
“If you play the defense and do exactly what you’re supposed to do and everybody comes to tackle, it works out. In the NFL you leave a crease, the running back’s gonna find it. You can’t leave the creases, everybody has to take care of their gap, and when you’re doing that you’re usually playing good football.”