Steelers attempt to address communication issues on defense
Receivers running wide open down the field — not just once, but on multiple occasions.
Confused players sprinting onto the field, getting into alignment just before the ball was snapped. Other times, a similar frantic run was stopped as an annoyed teammate shooed him back to the sideline.
Communication issues, by the defensive coordinator’s own admission, not just among the secondary but within the front seven as well.
To put it bluntly: It wasn’t just the final score that was ugly for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense in last week’s 42-37 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
It’s difficult to pin down a worst moment for coordinator Keith Butler’s crew last Sunday. But when half of the defense was running one scheme and another half was in a different set during a first-quarter snap deep in Steelers territory, the result was an easy Travis Kelce 19-yard touchdown.
“We have a quarterback on the (defense), and we always have to play what he is playing,” Butler said. “Even if he is wrong, we all have to be wrong. We all have to be ‘wrong,’ and we will be right if we do that.
“I know that doesn’t make sense to y’all, but it makes sense to our guys.”
Steelers fans watching some of the carnage might think the defensive calls weren’t making sense.
The defense was facing one of the NFL’s better offenses in the Chiefs, and its issues ranged well beyond communication. But the players and coaches on the unit themselves acknowledged confusion was a significant factor in allowing three times as many touchdowns (six) as punts (two) during Kansas City’s 11 meaningful drives.
It’s an issue that must be addressed by Monday when the Steelers face a Tampa Bay team that leads the league in total yards (482.5) and passing yards (405.0) per game and is second in scoring at 37.5.
“Everybody needs to be talking, linebackers and safeties, making sure the linebackers and the D-linemen hear it,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “So it’s just echoing the calls. I think that’s about it (to fix the issues).”
Haden’s return — he missed the Chiefs game because of a hamstring injury — could help, too. He is a calming veteran presence in the secondary and on the defense as a whole.
Another reason to believe the communication lapses on defense could be allayed this week is the Steelers vowed to simplify their calls. Against Kansas City, the Steelers intentionally complicated things in an effort to confuse second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes in his third career start.
It backfired. The only people who appeared confused were the Steelers.
“We have to do a better job of coaching, a better job of understanding what we are trying to get done in the defense and make sure we are not trying to do too much defensively,” Butler said.
As recently as only three years ago, the Steelers rarely veered from playing two base defensive personnel packages — a 3-4 base and nickel. They have added a dime package in addition to tinkering with using seven defensive backs at times.
Take the new looks, combined with new personnel (rookie Terrell Edmunds, free agents Morgan Burnett and Jon Bostic) and sprinkle in a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen element (Butler acknowledged multiple coaches are communicating calls), and the results haven’t been pretty.
But the players are blaming the execution more than the scheme.
“Yeah, the scheme of this defense, it’s just really different, yeah,” linebacker Bud Dupree said. “But once all cylinders are on the same page, it can be a deadly defense — if it’s clicking.
“So that’s all we are all trying to make sure we are working toward, that we all can be solid and doing our job and in the right places and doing the right things. As long as we’re doing that, we’ll make the defense look like the way it should look.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.