PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The Steelers’ defense has some new faces among the starting group and new position coaches. But one wrinkle in their alignment could be just as much of a difference-maker this upcoming season.
During organized team activities and minicamp, defensive coordinator Keith Butler has experimented with flipping his outside linebackers: Bud Dupree has moved over to the right side of the defense (otherwise known as the “weak” side), while T.J. Watt has lined up on the left side (“strong” side).
The coaches agree that it could pay off immediately and with big dividends for a few different reasons.
“The quarterback can’t see Bud on the right side,” Butler said. “If he’s on the right side of the quarterback, he can see him coming off the ball. He can feel him when he goes behind him. If he’s on the other side, [the quarterback] doesn’t have a feel for where he’s at, so he doesn’t know what Bud is doing.”
As far as how Watt would handle the change going into his second season, outside linebackers coach Joey Porter doesn’t think it will be a problem given Watt’s track record.
“T.J. was a left side rusher from the beginning,” said Porter about Watt’s role when he played collegiately at the University of Wisconsin, “so he actually loves the left side. Hopefully that works out for him also.”
Dupree is also familiar being moved around at different positions, having played multiple linebacker roles during his college days at the University of Kentucky, so the coaches think the two will adjust accordingly.
“I think that’s the way it’s going to help us,” Butler said. “T.J. will be a little bit more disciplined in terms of just trying to contain the quarterback and trying to constrict the pocket around him.”
While the look on the field will be different, Watt says the preparation for attacking opposing offensive lines won’t change much from last season.
“When we studied offensive lines, we studied them all together,” he said. “It’ll definitely be a little bit more studying on my own, but as a team, as outside linebackers it won’t be much different.”
Another thing that helps make the transition smoother is the experience at the outside linebacker position. Backup Anthony Chickillo has played on both sides of the formation, so he’s ready to come in if either starter has to leave the game.
“I like my depth,” said Porter. “I love the youth. I love where we’re at. It’s not like they’re new to the system. Bud’s going on his fourth year (in the NFL), Chickillo is going on his fourth year, T.J. is going on his second year and then the young puppies behind them. As far as playing experience, those three guys have played enough games to know what we want and know how we need to execute the defense.”
As for implementing those changes during offseason practices, Watt says this is the perfect time to do it.
“I think both times – now, before camp and then once camp comes around – this is when you kind of start chiseling away at what’s going to be the final product,” he said. “We’ve got a big ice block right now, and we’re carving into it and making our sculpture. We’re a far way out, so why not experiment right now?”
The Steelers ranked first in the NFL last season in sacks with 56. Watt (seven) and Dupree (six) combined for 13 out of the 17 recorded from the outside linebacker group.