For the first time since 2003, longtime Steelers fixture Dick LeBeau isn't on their sidelines. After a disappointing year, LeBeau was forced out last offseason. Pittsburgh didn’t stray too far, promoting assistant Keith Butler to LeBeau's defensive-coordinator role, and he'll be calling the signals in the Steelers' opener against the Patriots at Gillette on Thursday night.
Already, there are signs of change. Yes, the Steelers will still employ a base 3-4 defense, but there will be wrinkles, something Butler promised in an interview earlier this summer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“There will be some things that are different, yes,” said Butler, who has used some 4-3 this summer. “We have to try to marry the things that we did well last year and maybe some things that we haven’t done before here, we’re going to try to do those.”
“I’ll let the Patriots figure that out when we play them,’’ he said.
I asked Bill Belichick how the Patriots preparation will change, considering they not only knew LeBeau’s defense, but repeatedly thrived against it.
“Coach Butler is a very experienced coach,” Beliohick said. “He’s worked under Coach LeBeau for 11 years. That goes all the way back with [head coach Mike] Tomlin back to Arkansas State, so they have a long history together. How it’s all going to unfold, I’m not sure. Obviously, we’ve seen what we’ve seen in preseason, and that’s definitely something to go off of, but I’m sure they’ll have some specific game-plan things that they want to do against us, and we won’t know those until the game starts.”
Tom Brady acknowledged that as well, during a conference call with the Pittsburgh media.
“There might be a few things that are different, but a lot of it’s the same,” he said. “I think the philosophy of playing Steeler defense is definitely still there. They’ve always been one of the toughest, most physical teams that you play in all levels of the defense and that’s still the way it is. It’s a very big, physical front, powerful, athletic linebackers that seem like they all have great instincts out there and a secondary that can definitely make plays.”
Brady had a habit of carving up the zone blitzes that were a Steeler/LeBeau trademark. But he’s not foolish enough to assume past success means the same will happen Thursday.
“This night is going to be a lot different,” he said. “They’ve got a tough scheme and with a new defensive coordinator. I’m sure they’ll have some new wrinkles. It’s a big challenge. We’ve had a couple challenging days of practice trying to get ready for their different blitz packages.”
If they can handle those blitz packages, and adapt quickly to the new “wrinkles”, the results will be what we’ve come to expect. But the unknowns that come with the opener still loom large.
“I think the unknown is just how teams will perform as teams -- our team or anybody else’s team at this point,” said Belichick. “We just haven’t seen the same kind of competitive situation that we’re going to see on Thursday night where teams are game planning and teams are pulling out all stops to do everything they can do to win. They’re not looking at players. They’re trying to play their best players and do their best things and really see how all that works out. I think that’s an unknown that will last for several weeks into the regular season until teams start to really establish what they can and can’t do on a consistent basis. That’s true of all 32 teams in my opinion."