Steelers hope sack-happy performance vs. Browns was no fluke

Published 1:05 am Wednesday, November 23, 2016

By Will Graves

AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler only wishes he was brilliant enough to explain how a defense that struggled to get to the quarterback for two months seemed to have little trouble last Sunday in Cleveland.

The same group that managed all of 13 sacks through nine games piled up eight in four dominant quarters against the inept Browns.

And here’s the thing, Butler figures the number should have been closer to a dozen. So what was it? Scheme? A return to the team’s “Blitzburgh” roots? Savvy coaching? Butler wishes he could take the credit. He can’t.

“If I knew that I’d do it every week,” Butler said Tuesday. “We got after ‘em a little bit, but at the same time we executed better.”

Playing the NFL’s worst team helped. Yet the Steelers (5-5) believe there’s a little more to it. Butler moved defensive end Stephon Tuitt up and down the defensive line, rarely putting him in the same spot on consecutive snaps.

Inside linebacker Ryan Shazier was given more freedom to get into the backfield — sometimes lining up on the outside in search of a mismatch — and Butler even allowed rookie safety Sean Davis to cause havoc.

And Pittsburgh did it with its best defensive player back home dealing with a torn pectoral muscle that ended his season.

Watching instead of playing will take some getting used to for Cam Heyward, though he’s adjusting to the role of head cheerleader rather quickly.

After watching Tuitt pick up 2½ sacks and rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave belly flopping on a fumble for a touchdown, Heyward issued a well-intentioned dare heading into Thursday night’s visit to Indianapolis (5-5), where journeyman quarterback Scott Tolzien appears ready to fill in for the injured Andrew Luck.

“I challenged them to do it again this week,” Heyward said. “Now you’ve seen what you can do, let’s keep it going. Let’s keep accomplishing goals.”

The Steelers may have caught a break with Luck unlikely to play while going through the league’s concussion protocol.

If Luck sits, that means Tolzien will be the one playing behind an offensive line that’s given up 35 sacks, the second-highest total in the NFL even with the mobile Luck under center.

“We’ve had our issues in the past as far as sacks and pressures and things like that,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said.

“They’ve got a great unit and a great defense coming. We all saw what they did against the Browns and what they’re capable of.”

And that’s kind of been the problem this season for the Steelers, who piled up 48 sacks during Butler’s first year as coordinator in 2015, but have failed to create any consistent kind of havoc in the pocket so far in 2016.

Initially Butler opted to play it safe while incorporating a slew of new faces into the lineup.

Yet even when he started to mix it up in later weeks — particularly during a four-game losing streak that took all the momentum out of Pittsburgh’s 4-1 start — plays that were out there to be made were not.

“My thing with them is just do your job (and) stop trying to do someone else’s job,” Butler said. “That’s usually what happens when you have a breakdown is you try to overcompensate for what you think is a weakness in the defense instead of just doing your job.”

The tape from Cleveland showed the message may finally be getting through.

“It’s definitely a game we can build on,” Shazier said. “We understand we take care of our responsibilities then everything will be taken care of. Guys understand if we do our job, the plays coming our way are going to happen instead of trying to force something.”

Tolzien hasn’t taken a meaningful snap since subbing for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay in 2013. While Pagano stressed Tolzien knows the Indianapolis offense “inside and out,” he also hasn’t been hit when it matters for three years.

A little chaos may go a long way for the Steelers as they try to go on another second-half run similar to the ones that carried them to the postseason in 2014 and 2015.

“We know we’re capable of more,” Davis said. “It’s just about staying aggressive and paying attention to details.”

NOTES: WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot) and RB DeAngelo Williams (knee) are likely out. … S Jordan Dangerfield (groin) and TE Xavier Grimble (quadriceps) were limited on Tuesday.


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