Keith Butler had just finished talking about his linebackers for close to 20 minutes with an array of reporters last week before beginning his walk back to his office. Halfway down the hallway, Butler let out a satisfying end-of-the-workday breath and said, "You know, this is the fastest defense we've had since I've been here."
Butler was saying a lot, I joked, since his tenure as a Steelers assistant dates back to the 1930s.
"Well, not that long," he laughed. "But I've been here a long time."
Butler replaced Mike Archer as linebackers coach in 2003 and helped put together a defense that in the next 10 years finished No. 1 in fewest yardage five times, No. 1 in fewest points four times, appeared in three Super Bowls, won two, and had nine players named to 25 Pro Bowls.
Last year, Butler's 11th with the team, the Steelers slipped to 13th in yardage allowed, 14th in points allowed, finished 8-8, and had only one Pro Bowler, Troy Polamalu.
Now that really is saying something.
Here's the breakdown:
DEFENSIVE LINE -- Line coach John Mitchell said, "We've got a lot of guys who've got a lot of speed. But like I said, they don't have any idea what we're doing right now."
"He's got potential," Mitchell said of Tuitt. "Right now he's making some mistakes. When he's in there he gives a good effort, but it's going to take some time for him to sort out some things. The guy's strong. He's fast. As soon as he can comprehend what we're doing and learn how to do it our way, he'll be a guy we can go to war with. But you can't go to war with him today, tomorrow, or next week."
So when Tuitt learns the game, he and emerging star Cameron Heyward should give the Steelers the kind of athleticism they had at DE in the Aaron Smith-Brett Keisel heyday. As for NT Steve McLendon, he has no plans to lose 20-plus pounds off his 330-pound frame as he did last year when he said he lost power and explosiveness. Even at 330, McLendon was consistently praised by Tomlin this spring for chasing the ball downfield.
So the Steelers have some athletes up front. But after the top four are backup NT Loni Fangupo and young DEs Nick Williams and Brian Arnfelt, neither of whom have proven yet that they belong in the league. Williams just got on the field last week for the first time in a year. Last year's seventh-round draft pick said his knee will be able to take full-time work at the start of training camp. Arnfelt, it's being said, needs to develop the edge that turned Chris Hoke from a guy to a player. If neither of the young DEs shows much at camp, then Brett Keisel could factor back into the equation.
LINEBACKERS -- Three different rookies made starts at linebacker last season, the first in which veteran Timmons called the defensive signals. And this is how Butler described the action: "Jarvis (Jones) didn't know what he was doing. He didn't have any idea, so he's hollering over to Jason Worilds, 'What do I do?' And then he'd be asking Lawrence, 'What do I do?' But Lawrence has to make the call. He shouldn't be asking Lawrence."
But the linebackers have grown and improved. In fact, Butler said, "We've got inside linebackers out the butt."
Timmons and first-round pick Ryan Shazier are the starters; Sean Spence is back and flying around the field after two years of knee rehab; Vince Williams, with a year of emergency experience, is the backup signal-caller; Terence Garvin is seemingly every source's player to watch and he'll replace Stevenson Sylvester as the swing inside-outside guy; Kion Wilson is the third-team signal-caller and is more confident and quicker than he was a year ago; and the acquisition of the other third-team ILB, street free-agent Dan Molls, made scouts happy because the Steelers had a draftable grade on Molls in 2012.
On the outside, Jones is expected to make a drastic leap this season and Worilds is clearly the most powerfully built of all the linebackers and is healthier than the trainer watching out for his calf injury this spring would have outsiders believe. Butler praised backup Chris Carter for his work in the spring and multiple scouts believe free-agent acquisition Arthur Moats was one of the surprises of the spring. With so much talent, it's looking like sixth-round pick Jordan Zumwalt would have to open his career on the practice squad if he shows enough at camp.
SECONDARY -- OK, two off-the-field notes with which to start here. First, Polamalu told me that he and his family are moving to Pittsburgh full-time from San Diego. That was a pleasant surprise. Not only will he and his wife be a boon to the community for years to come, but we'll get to watch his two sons play football or soccer some day at Pine-Richland High.
Secondly, Mike Mitchell needs to chill out with his policing of the media. He's made it clear that he doesn't like the media, and it's obvious he doesn't trust us. And that's understandable since he was a high-round bust in downtrodden Oakland before breaking out in Carolina last year. But it's a losing attitude and Mitchell doesn't need to pass this mistrust to the rookies. In that way he's reminding me of Mewelde Moore, who came to Pittsburgh thinking that everyone hates the media, but for whatever reason that hasn't been the attitude among Steelers players through the years.
On the field, Mitchell brings speed to the back end that Ryan Clark couldn't provide last year. Will Mitchell be as good against the run? Will he blow up receivers the way Clark did? Probably. That's what Mitchell did last year in Carolina.
After Mitchell and Polamalu, Robert Golden had an excellent spring and Shamarko Thomas will be a chess piece who can run, cover, hit and play special teams. Will Allen is another wily vet to round out a deep group of safeties.
At cornerback, Taylor might be pulling off the impossible: He just might be in the best shape of his life. The guy looks like a greyhound at the ripe old age of 34. Behind Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay, scrappy Antwon Blake had a strong spring as the No. 4, and rookie fifth-round pick Shaquille Richardson, who played with Golden at Arizona, got better each week. Brice McCain and Isaiah Green, 4.3 sprinters in college, offer deep depth if needed.
As if this revamped defense needed any more speed.