Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers fell short of their annual regular-season goal of winning the AFC North crown.
From Week One’s messy tie in Cleveland to a certain fumble in New Orleans and everything in between, it felt as if the Steelers couldn’t quite remove the omen placed upon them in the winding moments of the game.
The reasons as to why the Steelers crumbled when it mattered most vary depending on who you talk to. Some will point the finger to head coach Mike Tomlin. Others will direct you towards the poor performance of Chris Boswell. Antonio Brown singled out JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler has been on the receiving end of criticism through his tenure leading the Steelers defense, and perhaps rightfully so. From having his defense running two different plays at the same time to the questionable management of personnel, Butler’s performance has been anything but championship worthy.
From a numbers perspective, things aren’t so bad for Pittsburgh’s defense. The Steelers have led the league in sacks the last two seasons, and have ranked 6th/5th the last two seasons in total defense, respectively.
So where’s the discrepancy between the stat sheet and success on the field? Butler thinks he’s found the key to getting back in the playoffs.
“My concern is number one: Can we pressure the quarterback when he’s throwing the ball? Number two: Can we win football games? For me, winning football games has a lot to do with what’s happening in (the last) two minutes. If you look at what’s happening in the last couple years in football… It seems like the league is concerned about how many four point games we got. Which is good, because it keeps everybody in tune. But the problem is we gotta make sure we’re good at it, and I think we can be better than we were last year. We gotta get the ‘winning edge’ so to speak.”
Butler’s concerns are indeed valid. Since his promotion to defensive coordinator in 2015, the Steelers have been involved in 20 regular season games where the outcome was decided by four or less points.
The Steelers own a 13-6-1 record through that stretch of time in those games. The difference between a divisional title and watching the postseason from home can be found within these games. In example, Pittsburgh’s 2017 campaign (that saw a successful 13-3 season) featured a 6-1 record in games decided by four points. In 2018, a season that saw the Steelers miss the postseason, the team went 3-3-1 in those four point contests.
It’s no secret formula. Making plays in the final minutes of the game will likely lead to more wins than defeats. The challenge for Pittsburgh remains finding those who are able to do just that: Make plays when it matters the most.
The Steelers moved into the top ten of the 2019 NFL Draft to secure Devin Bush, a linebacker who has already received praise from those around him during his short time in Pittsburgh. With the Steelers also drafting cornerback Justin Layne and signing CB Steven Nelson/LB Mark Barron via free agency, the Steelers believe they have a handful of guys that will rise to the challenge when needed.
With championship expectations clearly set for the Steelers every year, time may be wearing thin on Butler and his abilities as a defensive coordinator. Butler believes focusing on situational football will see better results for his defense. If 2019 is a repeat of last season, Butler may find himself out of a job in Pittsburgh.