PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers gave Keith Butler a very specific mandate when he replaced Hall of Fame defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau last January.
More sacks. More takeaways. No matter what. No matter who. No matter how.
In that vein, Butler’s first season putting together the game plan is an unqualified success. The Steelers finished with 48 sacks and 17 interceptions, up from 33 and 11 last season and the club’s most in each category since 2010, when Pittsburgh advanced to the franchise’s eighth Super Bowl.
The “splash plays” that coach Mike Tomlin covets have helped overcome mistakes that pop up when the Steelers (10-6) can’t get their hands on the ball or the opposing quarterback.
Pittsburgh can be both vicious and vulnerable, often on the same drive. The group that finished third in the league in sacks and turnovers created also wound up 21st in yards allowed, the team’s highest ranking in that category since Chuck Noll’s final season in 1991. It’s not ideal but with one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses, Pittsburgh has a little more wiggle room than usual heading into Saturday’s wild-card game in Cincinnati (12-4).
“A lot of people talk about the yards we give up in the secondary, but usually when that happens we’re getting great red zone stops, we’re getting turnovers, we’re causing havoc up front with the defensive line, making teams one dimensional,” safety Will Allen said.
And doing it at opportune times. Six of Pittsburgh’s picks came with opponents driving deep in Steelers territory, including James Harrison’s turn-back-the-clock grab in the second half last Sunday in Cleveland on a play reminiscent of his 100-yard free-for-all in the 2009 Super Bowl. Harrison only made it six yards this time before being tackled — such are the perils of being 38 — but it halted the Browns’ last legitimate shot at an upset. Ben Roethlisberger hit Darrius Heyward-Bey for a 66-yard gain to set up a field goal and Pittsburgh pulled away.
Harrison’s pick made him the 12th different Steeler defender to collect an interception this season. When cornerback Antwon Blake pulled down Cleveland quarterback Austin Davis in the second quarter, he became the 16th different Steeler to record at least half a sack, the most since the 2005 team that won it all.
That kind of democratic production is by design. Butler and Tomlin have not shied away from tinkering with personnel and snap counts at linebacker and in the secondary, depending on the matchup. And Butler has become adept at disguising blitzes, often leading to open lanes for one of the defensive backs to create chaos.
The concept serves two purposes: it keeps backups engaged during practice while also allowing the starters (a nominal label at this point in the season) a needed breather.
“It keeps things fresh, it inspires guys,” Tomlin said. “It gives guys a reason to prepare. I like an inclusive mentality.”
So good luck getting Tomlin to divulge what kind of groupings he has in mind for the Bengals, who will almost certainly start A.J. McCarron in place of Andy Dalton, whose thumb still hasn’t healed from getting busted up while trying to tackle Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt during Tuitt’s game — and possibly season — turning red-zone interception in a 33-20 Steelers victory on Dec. 13.
McCarron finished with 280 yards passing in that game but was also dropped three times and threw a pair of interceptions.
“Our formula for winning is getting turnovers and sacks,” Allen said. “When we do that, we give our offense more opportunities and make the field longer for opposing teams.”
Sometimes, but not always. When the Steelers don’t get in the backfield in time, trouble follows. Nine quarterbacks threw for at least 280 yards and opponents passed for 29 touchdowns against Pittsburgh season, jarring when you consider Roethlisberger, Mike Vick and Landry Jones combined for 26.
There are holes to be sure, ones that can’t be addressed until the spring at the earliest. For now, the Steelers will keep rolling the dice with pressure, hoping they win enough battles to tilt the outcome of the war.
Notes: Pittsburgh RB DeAngelo Williams is “day to day” with a right leg injury and his status for Saturday is uncertain at best. Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman will get most of the reps in practice. … The Steelers signed RB Abou Toure to the practice squad. … LB Jarvis Jones and WR Martavis Bryant are expected to practice this week after being limited against the Browns due to injury.