Keith Butler, Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin
Knowing when to part ways is awfully difficult in sports. We see athletes hang on too long and tarnish their legacies. We see teams hold on to long-tenured players well beyond their expiration date.
In asking for Dick LeBeau’s resignation, the Steelers avoided hanging on for too long with their longtime defensive coordinator.
Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are all likely done with the team. James Harrison may be as well. Those four were the last real holdovers from the beginning of LeBeau’s second stretch with the team. The time was right to clean the slate and let Keith Butler take over.
Truth be told, LeBeau’s defense had been slipping for a few years. Teams copied his 3-4 model and made player acquisition more difficult. The transition of the NFL to a pass-based league saw the Steelers playing less and less base defense. LeBeau’s consistent run of success was what started to finally allow other teams to catch up.
However, LeBeau could have done more to stem the tide. He bears some of the blame for the Steelers becoming fallible on the defensive side.
He played his veterans almost exclusively, which was understandable, given their success. However, that approach led to the team being unprepared when those players started getting long in the tooth. Rookies rarely cracked the lineup and didn’t make much impact when they did. This was often connected to the idea that LeBeau’s defense was complicated and took significant time to learn.
Again, those things would be excusable and understandable if the defense was playing at a consistently high level. Over the last two seasons, it was not. The need for youth was obvious, the lack of speed glaring. Still, the cast of characters remained largely the same. Injuries only explained that to a certain degree. It was clear that LeBeau was most comfortable with his veterans, even if their decline was obvious to outsiders.
William Gay’s pick-sixes aside, the Steelers of recent vintage haven’t forced a ton of turnovers, and they have seen their points allowed total jump from 227 in 2011, all the way to 370 last year, and 368 this season. They simply aren’t a fearsome, impactful, game-altering unit anymore. That is an indictment not only of Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert’s drafts, but also of LeBeau’s ability to scheme for and confuse opposing quarterbacks.
In the past, only elite signal callers gave the Steelers real problems. This year, they were bested by Mike Glennon and the league-worst Buccaneers -- at home, no less -- as well as Brian Hoyer and the mediocre Cleveland Browns. That suggests that LeBeau’s once-novel blitzing schemes aren’t as daunting anymore.
All of these results caused many of the faithful to question both defensive players, as well as Tomlin and Colbert. The one person that almost always dodged any pointed criticism was LeBeau. Excuses were made left and right. Many said the players weren’t good enough, the drafts had been barren, and that LeBeau had done his best with what was on hand. No Steelers game passed without at least one reference to LeBeau’s “exotic schemes,” even if his defense was getting torched.
It’s as if everyone was on autopilot with regard to LeBeau.
Sorry, but some of the blame has to fall back at the feet of the master himself. A great coordinator, working at a high level, would have found a way to mask deficiencies. He would have found ways to put players in better position to succeed. He would have perhaps developed new schemes that confused quarterbacks young and old. The stats suggest that LeBeau did not do that in recent years.
Dick LeBeau made it clear that he was resigning from his post as defensive coordinator, not retiring. It’s likely he will get another chance to coach in the NFL, even at 78. If he finds employment, good for him.
Meanwhile, the Steelers will move on with Butler, LeBeau’s protégé. Tomlin will likely have more input on the defense than ever before. Fresh voices will rule the day in the Steelers’ defensive meeting rooms.
That is as it should be. No matter how much his charges revered him, no matter how gaudy his reputation, Dick LeBeau’s time with the Steelers had reached an obvious expiration date.
Good on Tomlin and the team for not hanging on too long.
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