PITTSBURGH — The Hall of Fame architect is gone, off to an advisory role in Tennessee. The singular safety disappeared completely, retiring quietly in March with barely so much as a wave goodbye.
The venerable cornerback gets paid to talk rather than tackle these days, a fitting transition for a player who never met a microphone he didn’t like.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will push forward without Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu or Ike Taylor for the first time in more than a decade in 2015, an emotionally difficult but ultimately necessary transition. Sterling reputations and Super Bowl rings are one thing. Production is something else.
And after the worst defensive season in nearly a quarter century, Pittsburgh finished off a rebuilding process years in the making when it promoted Keith Butler to replace LeBeau as defensive coordinator and quietly urged Polamalu and Taylor to move on.
While Butler isn’t abandoning the 3-4 approach LeBeau used with remarkable success, he is refining it. Don’t let the easy Alabama drawl fool you. Butler’s primary goal is to make sure the menace that’s gone missing in recent seasons returns.
“We’ve got some good players, there’s no sense in changing most of this stuff,” Butler said. “We think there are some adjustments we can make that can help our guys go and be aggressive.”
For all the talk about schemes and tactics, Pittsburgh’s defense remains built on the same fundamentals LeBeau preached for years.
“Beat the man in front of you,” linebacker James Harrison said. “It’s not complicated.”
Neither is Butler, whose main departure from LeBeau may be in the way he allots playing time. LeBeau would typically bring young players along slowly.
Butler is already talking about making rookie outside linebacker Bud Dupree part of the regular rotation, and Dupree’s promising preseason — one that perked up after he got into it with the offensive line one day at training camp — provided tangible proof he may be difficult to keep off the field.
Butler won’t be afraid to experiment with different looks and combinations. He bypassed chances to go elsewhere to remain in Pittsburgh and eventually take over for LeBeau. Comparisons to his mentor are inevitable. Butler can live with them so long as he’s giving his players the freedom they need to succeed.
“I’m really not worried about putting my brand on this defense,” he said. “I’m worried about them winning and knowing what to do.”
Other things to look for as the defending AFC North champions try to win a postseason game for the first time in five years.
Missing parts: The Steelers travel to New England for the opener on Thursday without three key pieces of the league’s second-ranked offense. All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell is suspended for the first two games and wide receiver Martavis Bryant will have to sit out a month for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey is out until at least November with an ankle injury. Not exactly the way Pittsburgh wanted to face the league’s toughest schedule.
Pay day: Roethlisberger cashed in on the finest season of his career by getting a new contract worth around $100 million. The quarterback might be worth every last cent. He hasn’t missed a game in more than two years and has developed a rapport with offensive coordinator Todd Haley that has helped turn the Steelers into one of the most potent teams in the league. The 33-year-old Roethlisberger isn’t sure how much longer he’ll play, but the window shows no signs of closing anytime soon.
On the rebound: The Steelers gave cornerback Cortez Allen a $25 million extension last fall only to see Allen lose his confidence and his starting job. His resiliency will be vital as he takes over for Taylor, particularly with second-round pick Senquez Golson already out for the season.
Ain’t that a kick: Injuries to Shaun Suisham and Garrett Hartley forced the Steelers to acquire Josh Scobee from Jacksonville in the final days of the preseason. Considering Pittsburgh figures to be in plenty of tight games, Scobee will need to make himself at home in the swirling winds at Heinz Field, a far cry from the tranquil conditions he enjoyed with the Jaguars.
Long-term investment: The Steelers gave coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert extensions through 2018 just before camp started. Pittsburgh remains one of the most stable franchises in all of professional sports, but five years without a playoff win would be a long time in a place with more Lombardi Trophies than any other.