Keith Butler retired after seven years in Pittsburgh as defensive coordinator. With Butler, the Steelers have caused 842 sacks since 2003 when he joined Pittsburgh as linebackers coach under Bill Cowher, moving to the defensive coordinator role in 2014 under Mike Tomlin when the decision was made to change from Dick LeBeau.
Butler led a team with a historic defense through a difficult period, rebuilding the defense to an elite level with the likes of Ryan Shazier, Troy Polamalu, Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Bud Dupree.
Given Butler’s specialism with outside linebackers, one can’t help but suggest that Watt (who is either the Defensive Player of the Year after a 22.5 sack, record-breaking season, or the NFL is lying to itself) owes a lot of his progression to the Pittsburgh defensive coordinator.
Butler has suggested he did not have play-calling responsibility under Tomlin, but the progression of Watt, Dupree, and lately Alex Highsmith surely suggests the impact he has had on the franchise.
Now to Look Forward, Who is Next?
The Pittsburgh Steelers always recruit in-house. If so, the ‘next man up’ is Teryl Austin who is currently a senior defensive assistant. Austin knows Pittsburgh well having been born in Pennsylvania and having played his college ball at the University of Pittsburgh. He coached at Penn State, Wake Forest, Syracuse, and Michigan before joining the NFL with the Seattle Seahawks.
In 2009, Austin helped the Arizona Cardinals to reach Super Bowl XLIII – ultimately losing to the Steelers. Austin did later help the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers in 2013 as secondary coach.
Austin has also been the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals in more recent years, although the Bengals defense, unfortunately, became the first in NFL history to give up 500 or more yards in three straight games. Austin joined the Steelers on Jan. 8, 2019.
If not Teryl Austin however, we need to look at other potential candidates:
Joe Whitt – Cowboys Secondary Coach
The Steelers have announced interest in Joe Whitt, as have the Seahawks and the Ravens. Whitt made his name in Green Bay, as the Packers’ cornerbacks coach from 2009 to 2017. He was promoted to pass-game coordinator in 2018 before taking the same role across several NFL teams including the Cleveland Browns in 2019, Atlanta Falcons in 2020, and finally Dallas Cowboys in 2021.
Patrick Graham – Giants Defensive Coordinator
Whilst the Giants had a difficult year, it should not be forgotten that in 2020 they finished with the 9th best scoring defense. Graham has worked under Bill Belichick as a defensive line and linebackers coach, as well as being the defensive coordinator in Miami under Brian Flores.
Kris Richard – Saints Secondary Coach
Richard entered the coaching ranks in the NFL from 2010 to 2017 in Seattle, first as an assistant defensive back coach before being quickly promoted to defensive backs coach and subsequently to coordinator in 2015. In 2018, he moved to Dallas as a defensive backs coach. He then took the same role in New Orleans in 2021. It could be suggested that perhaps Richard would replace Austin as the secondary coach if Austin takes the step up to the defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh.
Brendan Daly – Chiefs Run Game Coordinator and Defensive Line Coach
Daly worked with Tomlin on the Minnesota Vikings in 2006 and has built a solid career as an NFL defensive positional coach. His history with Tomlin would surely be given some consideration by the Steelers’ head coach. Having also worked in New England and lately Kansas City, the coach has five rings and a proven track record, notably Super Bowl LIII, the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever (16 total points).
Don Martindale – Former Ravens Defensive Coordinator
Pittsburgh knows the Ravens’ defense all too well, having battled against it in key AFC North games over the past four years under Martindale. Baltimore has been particularly effective in fourth-down stops, defensive touchdowns, and simply keeping their opponents’ score down in the five seasons since Martindale stepped up from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator. He was also on the Ravens’ staff when the team won Super Bowl XLVII.
Next Man Up?
Probably Austin, as that is the Pittsburgh way, although it seems that the front office is considering options carefully. Will Butler’s successor be able to operate with Tomlin calling the plays, though? Time will tell.