In the days following the Pittsburgh Steelers 45-42 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC Divisional round, head coach Mike Tomlin announced offensive coordinator Todd Haley would not return to the team in 2018. But is Haley the only coordinator who needs to be shown the door this off season?
Immediately following the Steelers’ ouster from the playoffs, questions were in no short-supply around Steelers Nation and the national sports media were all too happy to entertain them:
Why try an on-sides kick with over two minutes remaining and two time outs? Why not run a QB sneak on fourth and one with a 6’5, 240-pound quarterback? Why were several players on the Steelers, seemingly, looking past a team that throttled them 30-9 in October, to the New England Patriots?
While Haley’s departure answers at least one of these, a singular inquiry still looms over the organization:
How in the world did the Steelers give up 45 points to Blake Bortles and the Jacksonville offense?
It’s a fair question to ask. After all, a week before last Sunday’s match-up, the Buffalo Bills, the league’s 26th-ranked defense, held the Jaguars to ten points – in Jacksonville. In that Wild Card game, Bortles threw for a paltry 87 yards and Leonard Fournette was limited to just 57 yards on the ground on 21 carries, good for an average of 2.7 yards-a-pop.
With that as a backdrop, the Steelers’ defensive performance against Jacksonville looks even worse. Does that mean it’s time for DC Keith Butler to start updating his resume?
While this may irk some Steelers die-hards who long for the days of “Mean” Joe Greene and Jack Lambert, a closer inspection of this season’s defensive statistics shows that retaining Butler is the right move.
Even while dealing with the irreplaceable loss of Ryan Shazier in their final four games, the Steelers ended the regular season with the fifth overall defense in the NFL, allowing just over 19 points per game to opponents. The oft-maligned secondary, which played without Joe Haden for five games down the stretch, allowed an average of just 201.1 yards per game through the air and the defensive line, led by All-Pro Cam Heyward, helped the Steelers register the fourth ranked rushing defense in the AFC.
However, critics will point out in the loss to Jacksonville the defense, seemingly, couldn’t stop anything the Jaguars threw at them. Rushes up the middle, play-action passes to a runner out of the backfield, and even a deep throw from Bortles all worked. Repeatedly. Yet, is one game enough to warrant the firing of a coordinator?
Todd Haley would probably say it is, given his current predicament. But the situation with Haley was different. There was clearly a longstanding tension between quarterback and OC that led to his departure.
With Butler, no such divide exists – at least that’s public – so instead of kicking him to the curb, this off season the Steelers need to make it clear, while the defense has been statistically one of the best in football, the screws need to be tightened and a priority needs to be put on in-game adjustments to limit an opponent’s offensive success.
One of the obvious hurdles facing the Steelers as they prepare for the 2018 season is finding someone, or someones, to fill the void left by Shazier. Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but one that needs to be addressed. However, even with the hole left by “50” in the middle of the defense, enough pieces of the puzzle return next year for Pittsburgh on defense that a run at Super Bowl Championship number seven seems possible.
And, if Tomlin is true to his word, Butler will be the one leading them there, as he should be.