Steelers' pass rush revived under Keith Butler
PITTSBURGH (AP) Mike Tomlin isn't one to mince words.
While meeting with the Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebackers during organized team activities this spring, Tomlin pointed to the 51 sacks the defense produced the previous time the franchise won the Super Bowl in 2009.
Then he pointed to the 33 it managed last season, which ended with an AFC North title but a quick exit in the wild-card round.
The way Tomlin figured it, that number needed to go up. Way up.
Keith Butler was listening. The only real mandate Tomlin gave Butler when he replaced Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator in January was to find a way to generate more pressure, namely the kind that ends with the quarterback on the ground or the Steelers running the other way with the ball.
Four games into Butler's tenure, the results are promising.
The Steelers (2-2) already have 14 sacks, fourth best in the league. Yes, it's early but one thing has become readily apparent: the blitz is back in the place they used to call ''Blitzburgh.''
''I think that's the Steelers personality,'' safety Mike Mitchell said. ''We have the guys ... why sit back and wait if we can get after you?''
It's not just one player or one group doing the job. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt has 3 1/2 sacks. Rookie linebacker Bud Dupree has a pair.
Safety Will Allen picked up the first one of his 12-year career in the opener against New England and James Harrison's 37-year-old legs were still fresh enough to chase down Baltimore's Joe Flacco in a 23-20 overtime loss to the Ravens last week.
About the only person Butler has not sent into the opposing backfield is outside linebackers coach Joey Porter.
''Every week is something new in regard to what coach Butz wants to call it, his flavor of the week,'' linebacker Arthur Moats said.
One that seems awfully familiar to San Diego coach Mike McCoy, whose team hosts the Steelers on Monday night.
''It's a traditional Pittsburgh Steelers defense,'' McCoy said. ''They're very physical. They get after you. It's the way they play, that's been there a long time.''
Maybe not so much recently. Pittsburgh finished 18th in yards allowed and points allowed last season, sending the brilliant LeBeau out on a somewhat sour note. Butler remains faithful to LeBeau's philosophy while adding a bit of swashbuckling gambler.
The Steelers have spent most of the current decade trying to stockpile talent at linebacker, spending a first-round pick on the position in each of the past three drafts.
While outside linebacker Jarvis Jones continues to search for consistency, Dupree and 2014 pick Ryan Shazier appear to have picked things up quickly.
Tuitt, taken a round after Shazier last year, is blossoming now that Butler is asking him to simply beat the man in front of him instead of occupying as many blocks as possible to free up the linebackers to go get the ball.
''He's wreaking havoc,'' defensive end Cam Heyward said.
He's hardly the only one. Members of the secondary are darting pell-mell into the backfield too.
''There's so many guys contributing to the effort, it makes sure we always have pressure on the field,'' Heyward said.
All that aggressiveness does have a downside. Pittsburgh gave up 190 yards rushing against the Ravens, some of them on traps and draws that saw a Baltimore running back dart through an opening left by a Steeler intent on getting to the quarterback without taking care of his assignment first.
''That's definitely the part that gets us the most,'' Moats said. ''We can identify the runs when they happen.''
Stopping them, apparently is another matter. Both Moats and Heyward chastised themselves and their teammates for poor tackling, saying there's too much grabbing and not enough wrapping up.
Feel free to call it growing pains for a group that has just one starter older than 30, though the Steelers would prefer to speed up the learning process.
''First and second down is where we're getting gashed,'' Heyward said. ''We've got to have better focus and a better idea of the situation we're in ... but we also want to make sure quarterbacks can't get back there and dissect us. It's a balance we're still trying to get to.''
NOTES: LB Ryan Shazier (shoulder), CB Cortez Allen (knee), TE Matt Spaeth (hand) and WR Markus Wheaton (ankle) all practiced on Thursday and should play against the Chargers barring a late setback.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL