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Steelers should fire Keith Butler, not Mike Tomlin, after missing playoffs

The Steelers signed kicker Matt McCrane off the street.

He makes all three of his field-goal attempts, including the game-winning 35-yarder with 1:56 left, and the Steelers beat the Bengals 16-13 Sunday at Heinz Field.

It’s quite a story, but there was no time to revel in this victory. As soon as the clock struck zero in Pittsburgh, the question was What’s Going on in Baltimore.

What went on in Baltimore would probably rank No. 2 on the list of the most painful scoreboard-watching moments in Steelers history. The only one worse was Ryan Succop‘s infamous missed field goal that would have given the Chiefs’ backups a win over the Chargers and the Steelers a playoff berth in 2013.

The Browns didn’t come that close to beating the Ravens Sunday. Down two points with about a minute left, they were within 10 yards of field goal range when C.J. Mosley intercepted Baker Mayfield on fourth down.

The Steelers still could have sneaked under the velvet ropes of the playoffs if the Colts and Titans had played to a tie Sunday night, but since this is American football and not the sport that’s called football everywhere else in the world, we knew there was no way Sunday night’s game wouldn’t have a winner.

So the Steelers (9-6-1) have missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. They’ll have gone 11 years since their last championship and nine years since their last Super Bowl appearance. They were 7-2-1 on Thanksgiving and cleaning out their lockers on New Year’s Eve (or maybe New Year’s Day).

This organization faces a lot of questions. There will be time this offseason to examine all of them. For now, let’s start with the easiest one:

Should Mike Tomlin be fired?

Tomlin needs help with clock management and in-game strategy. Depending on how much of a role he plays with the defense, he needs to delegate those duties (more on that later). But firing Tomlin isn’t going to increase the Steelers’ chances of winning a seventh Super Bowl title.

For one thing, Tomlin has never had a losing season. Those who want him fired are tired of hearing that. He’s never had a losing season but he’s had two 8-8 seasons, a 9-7 season and a 9-6-1 season.

That’s true, and the Steelers shouldn’t have to rely on the damn Browns to make the playoffs, for crying out loud. But as undignified as scoreboard-watching is, there are a bunch of teams that would love to be at least that close to the playoffs in Week 17 every year.

Since Tomlin took over as coach in 2007, the Steelers have played only one game in which they knew they weren’t making the playoffs. That was Week 17 of the 2012 season. In 2009, they weren’t officially out of the playoffs until the Jets beat the Bengals’ scrubs on Sunday Night Football in Week 17, and the gut-wrenching conclusion to the 2013 season has been mentioned.

Bill Cowher had three losing seasons in his 15 years at the helm and coached one meaningless game in 2006 and three of them in 2003, according to MakeNFLPlayoffs.com.

The Steelers’ loss to the Jaguars in the 2017 divisional round after a 13-3 season doesn’t look good on Tomlin’s resumé, nor does this year’s collapse. It would be enough to get a coach fired in most organizations.

But not in Pittsburgh, and that’s part of the reason the Steelers have won more Super Bowls than any other team. The Rooneys take a long-term view when it comes to their coaches, and a long-term view might help shed some light on why the Steelers haven’t been to the Super Bowl since 2010.

Tomlin’s not the problem. The main problem is the defense.

By now, everyone knows the Keith Butler story. Via Pro Football Talk, the Steelers defensive coordinator talked this week about how tough it would be to stop Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert, who’s on injured reserve.

Butler’s always had trouble staying up to date on the league’s tight ends. In his debut in 2015, Butler didn’t seem to realize that Rob Gronkowski was active. The Steelers left him uncovered multiple times as he caught five passes for 94 yards and three touchdowns in the Patriots’ season-opening win.

That was inexcusable. We could have made the excuse that it was Butler’s first day on the job, but he had 16 years as an NFL linebackers coach to prepare for that day. Losing Ryan Shazier hasn’t helped, but Butler hasn’t shown much evidence that he can run an entire defense or maximize its talent.

Regardless of whether Butler knew that Eifert would be in uniform Sunday, he has to go. It’s time for the Steelers to stop promoting from within and instead hire a young defensive mind.

Last year, offensive coordinator Todd Haley took the fall for the Steelers’ early playoff exit. While that was a good move, it didn’t solve all of the Steelers’ problems.

It’s been said since Art Rooney Sr. was in diapers that defense wins championships. Throughout the course of Steelers history, it really has.

All six of the Steelers’ Super Bowl-winning teams have ranked in the top five in both points allowed and yards allowed, according to Pro Football Reference. The 2010 team that went to the Super Bowl was first in points and second in yards and the 1995 AFC champions were ninth in points and third in yards.

Not since 2011 have the Steelers ranked in the top five in both categories. The problem with that team is that it forced just 15 turnovers, a franchise low that was matched this season. They took the ball away just 22 times in 2017 and 23 times in 2016. The 40 takeaways they’ve combined for over the last two seasons have been matched in a single season 26 times in the Steelers’ history.

Butler’s defenses aren’t giving the offense enough short fields. But as much as a new defensive coordinator is needed, that alone won’t give the Steelers the championship-caliber defense they’ve been missing for most of the last decade.

They also have to do a better job drafting defensive players. The Steelers have tried to win that seventh Lombardi Trophy by becoming an offensive juggernaut, and the Fire Tomlin crowd wonders how a team with Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster and a top-notch offensive line can fall short of the playoffs.

The Steelers’ championship teams of 2005 and 2008 were fueled by six consecutive drafts that built up the defense.

In 1998, the Steelers drafted Deshea Townsend, who had 21 career interceptions.

In 1999, they drafted four-time Pro Bowler Joey Porter and one-time Pro Bowler Aaron Smith, one of the best run-stopping defensive linemen in Steelers history.

The 2000 draft class, the first run by current Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, yielded Clark Haggans, who would record 46.5 sacks as a Steeler.

The 2001 draft brought five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton. The Steelers added Larry Foote and Brett Keisel in the 2002 draft and fortified the back end of the defense by drafting Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor in 2003.

The Steelers’ best defensive draft since then was 2014, when they took Shazier and Stephon Tuitt. Since then, the only pick on that side of the ball that the Steelers have really knocked out the park is T.J. Watt.

It’s kind of looking at this point that Bud Dupree is never really going to be a game-changing player. We still have to wait and see on Sean Davis and Terrell Edmunds. And we’ve seen enough of Artie Burns.

It might take a couple of impactful drafts for the Steelers to build up a defense with more ballhawks that can protect fourth-quarter leads and prevent big plays. Those inside linebackers probably couldn’t start for most teams. This team is more than just one player away on defense. So it might take more than just another year for the Steelers to return to the championship level they were at during the first half of Roethlisberger’s career.

After breaking a two-year playoff drought in 2014, the Steelers advanced one round further in the playoffs every year. It was tempting to believe this was a natural progression that would lead to a Super Bowl berth in 2017. Their season was shockingly cut short by the Jaguars, but they went 13-3, so they were still among the AFC’s elite, right?

Well, Chris Boswell was the difference between 13-3 and 9-7 in 2017. This year, it was pretty much the opposite.

It’s hard to grasp that the Steelers aren’t in the playoffs. But Steelers fans have been spoiled, not only by those four championships in the 1970s, but by the instant success in Roethlisberger’s career. After the Steelers won the Super Bowl twice in his first five years and the AFC title three times in his first seven years, it was hard not to expect more championships to follow. But maybe that was as good as it would get.

It’s time to scrap the idea that as long as the Steelers have Roethlisberger, they’re a championship contender. He’s never taken a team without an elite defense to the Super Bowl, and whether or not Colbert can regain his magic touch in the draft, it’s time to see what a new defensive coordinator can do with what the Steelers have now.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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3 comments

  1. Mike Batista

    I’ll agree that in among Noll, Cowher and Tomlin, Tomlin is definitely No. 3.

  2. Joe

    I am a Tomlin fan but I agree he has to go! We seem to take steps backwards every year. We need a discipline coach, who is a coach and not a “buddy”, that controls the players. Notice with the Patriots that you do it Belichicks way or you hit the highway. With Tomlin, the players seem to do what they want! Besides comparing Tomlin to Cowher is like comparing an apple to an orange.

    Plus we need some playmakers on defense because we aren’t consistently able to make plays. Sure losing Shazier hurt but in the NFL it is next man up! No consistent pressure on QBs, too many rushing yards giving up and very bad DB play.

  3. Pete Mitchell

    Tomlin IS the problem! Lack of discipline, not showing up ready to play (especially after bye weeks or playoff bye), bad judgement on play calls, challenges and clock management… those are all on Tomlin. Steelers have been on a steady decline under Tomlin since 2010.

    Anyone who compares the offensive talent that Cowher had, to what Tomlin has, is a moron. Until his final few seasons, Cowher never had a franchise QB. Cowher had losers like Tomczak, Slash, Maddox, and so-so o’Donnell during most of his tenure.

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