New guys scramble to learn
PITTSBURGH — Keith Butler doesn’t have time to keep all the unfamiliar faces straight in the middle of the season, so he doesn’t even really try.
At least initially.
It’s why the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator offers the same bit of advice to any fresh-faced newbie the first time they sit down at one of Butler’s meetings. See Cam Heyward? See T.J. Watt? Follow them.
“I just tell all the defensive lineman, ‘watch (Heyward),'” Butler said Tuesday. “Do what he does and you’ll be around for a while. If you don’t, you won’t.”
It’s a lesson Butler has imparted frequently during his team’s wildly uneven season. A series of injuries to high-profile veterans — from Watt to linemen Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt to cornerback Joe Haden — has forced the Steelers (6-5-1) to scour opposing rosters in search of help.
Taco Charlton, Derrek Tuszka, Montravius Adams and Ahkello Witherspoon. All of them were elsewhere when September began. Heck, Adams was in Seattle for Thanksgiving. All of them were on the field during crucial moments of Sunday’s 20-19 high-wire escape against Baltimore.
Charlton and fellow linebacker Tuszka, both signed in September, combined for three tackles while helping keep Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson relatively in check. Adams, plucked off the Seahawks’ practice squad at the beginning of last week to add some heft to Pittsburgh’s sagging run defense, had two tackles and swatted down a pass in 34 snaps.
“Adams came in and did a good job for us,” Butler said. “It’s very interesting that he did. He helped us and we think he’ll continue to help us.”
The Steelers needed the jolt. After getting gashed for a month while allowing 180.5 yards per game on the ground, Pittsburgh limited the Ravens to just 107 yards with the 6-foot-3, 304-pound Adams clogging up the middle for large chunks of the game.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin joked when you play nose tackle, there’s really not much to learn. Just figure out which gap you’re supposed to occupy and then go do it. Only there’s a bit more to it than that, and Butler and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar did what they could to speed up Adams’ crash course in a completely foreign system.
“We tried to simplify and not have a whole lot of different things we want to run and try to stay away from a lot of checks and stuff like that,” Butler said. “Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you have to do that. So we’ve been fortunate that our guys can pick it up and our coaches teach it. It takes a while sometimes.”
Acquired from Seattle on the eve of the regular season to help out a secondary in need of depth, Witherspoon played all of four snaps during the first half of the year. Pittsburgh traded for Witherspoon because there aren’t too many 6-foot-2 cornerbacks running around. Yet there was a certain something lacking in his approach.
“He probably hadn’t been urgent enough as he should be,” Butler said. “And he’s starting to get that now. You’ve got to be able to play with a sense of urgency when you’re playing corner in this league because guys can run by you.”
As difficult as it was being in essence a healthy scratch for weeks on end, Witherspoon understood why.
“In the beginning, with a new defense, I wasn’t as comfortable, I wasn’t as fast,” Witherspoon said. “I know I have to make plays in this league at a high level and a consistent level. You have to have the details of the defense down first and then the rest will follow.”
It appears as if he’s finally caught up. Witherspoon’s playing time has increased each of the past three weeks and he was on the field for 92% of the snaps against the Ravens after James Pierre — who surprisingly claimed a spot in the rotation coming out of training camp — faltered. Witherspoon had five tackles and just missed his first interception since grabbing one last December while playing for San Francisco.
Witherspoon figures to get another start on Thursday night in Minnesota with veteran Joe Haden likely to miss his fourth straight game with a sprained foot.
In a way, Haden’s absence has given Witherspoon a little bit of comfort in knowing that he’s going to probably get a chance to stay out there.
“It kind of puts me back in my comfort zone,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it affected my confidence, but understanding that if I make a mistake it’s time to take note of it and correct it and have that game flow and that’s always something you love as a corner, especially in this league.”
Notes: Haden, LB Rob Spillane (knee), OL B.J. Finney (back) and DL Isaiah Buggs (ankle) did not participate in the team’s walkthrough on Tuesday, meaning they are all likely out against Minnesota.