Keith Butler won't have any excuses if his defense continues to underperform.
At 0-3, the Steelers have conceded 33 points to the Patriots, 28 to the Seahawks and 24 to the 49ers, allowing 442 yards per game in the process — 29th in the league. On third downs, opponents convert against the Steelers 47 percent of the time, seventh-worst across the NFL. That stat goes hand-in-hand with time of possession, which Steelers opponents dominate, controlling the ball 34 minutes, 52 seconds per game thus far. That ranks 30th in the league.
But then you look at the players on the field. Devin Bush. Minkah Fitzpatrick. T.J. Watt. Joe Haden. In all, the Steelers boast 10 first-round draft picks on defense, eight of whom will usually see the field at the same time. Only Artie Burns and Tyson Alualu are not involved in the team's base package.
So the talent is there. Now it's up to Butler, Mike Tomlin and company to make it work, a point not lost on Butler himself when I asked him about it at the Rooney Complex:
“It’s still a lotta work that we gotta do," Butler was saying. "I mean, we gotta do a better job of it too. I gotta do a better job of making sure they know what we’re trying to do and get it done, and that they play as a team. I’m not trying to get them ready for a dadgum Pro Bowl. I’m trying to get them ready for a Super Bowl. And so, that’s a big difference to me. And the difference is, you gotta be willing to be a good teammate. What that means is, hey, I’m going to do my job and then help my buddy. I’m not going to try to make myself look good at the cost of the team and giving up yards and stuff like that. That’s the biggest thing that we’ve gotta do with the defense, I think.”
The opportunity is prime for them to turn it around Monday night against the struggling Bengals. Also 0-3, the Bengals rank 18th with 350.3 yards per game on offense, and 24th in time of possession. Their rushing attack ranks dead last, putting up just 41.7 yards per contest.
Butler, however, still sees plenty of danger when he looks at the other sideline.
“They got good players," Butler said. "They still got good players. Tyler Boyd is still there. He hasn’t gone anywhere. Their running backs are still there and they ain’t gone anywhere. [John Ross] is a dadgum speedster. All that stuff, they got people. [Andy Dalton] is still being Andy. He’s still a good player. [A.J. Green is] gone and all that stuff, but we gotta play, same thing. Nobody’s crying for us, so we gotta produce. We gotta play.”
The Steelers do "gotta play," as Butler puts it, and one player in particular who will be looking to make an impression is Fitzpatrick. He rang up five tackles, a forced fumble, an interception and a quarterback hit in his Steelers' debut in Week 3 against the 49ers. Now, with more preparation and experience with the Steelers system, Fitzpatrick will look to make an even bigger splash in primetime against the Bengals.
“That guy is a sharp dude, man," Butler was saying of Fitzpatrick. "He don’t miss much. You only have to tell him once and he’s got it. So he understands everything that’s going on. I think he’ll feel better — I think he will tell you he’ll feel better in two or three games. But being there his first game, having four days or three days to prepare and stuff like that, he played. I thought he played well.”
On the flip side, the Steelers' coveted rookie, Bush, has taken some time to adjust at the professional level. It hasn't been all bad — he's tied for the team lead with Terrell Edmunds at 28 tackles and he's recovered three fumbles — but he's also been burned in coverage by tight ends in the middle of the field. Bush and Mark Barron were brought in specifically to stop that problem for the team, but it hasn't materialized yet on game day. Butler, however, sees improvements.
“I think they’re better than we’ve had [in coverage]," Butler said. "They’re still feeling what we like to do. They had some things that they liked to do in college … When Mark was at the Rams, they did a couple different things here and there, but they’re starting to get used to [it] — I think the whole thing is learning to play with each other. And they’re starting to do that, I think.”
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