- Jeremy Fowler, ESPN Senior NFL Writer
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LATROBE, Pa. -- New Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler admits his in-house promotion was "awkward" because he replaced close friend Dick LeBeau.
Butler, Pittsburgh's linebackers coach for 12 seasons, told ESPN he didn't know what to say to LeBeau when the two talked on the phone shortly after coach Mike Tomlin made the switch. Butler estimated he had played about 300 rounds of golf with LeBeau over the years. Things haven't been the same since.
"You don't want to feel like you stabbed him in the back or anything like that to get the job," Butler said. "That never went on. Mike and I never talked about the job until Dick was let go."
Butler didn't want to force the Steelers' hand, but after the fifth inquiry from another NFL team about a coordinator opening -- Tennessee and Arizona were among the teams that requested his services in past years -- Butler told the Steelers he was ready to lead a defense. He didn't know what that meant exactly, he said, only that it was time to fill that need.
In the past, the Steelers raised Butler's pay to keep him. Plus, he loved the continuity of the staff, the Rooney family and the annual chase for a Super Bowl. Butler and the Steelers had talked informally about his coordinating the defense one day, but "never in writing."
The defense needed a spark after finishing 26th in sacks, tied for 25th in interceptions and 27th in passing yards allowed last season.
Since being promoted, Butler has been crafting a defense that relies on Steelers staples -- 3-4 formation, dropping both safeties into coverage -- while bringing new ideas, such as getting defensive ends more one-on-one opportunities and various linebacker blitz packages.
Butler said Tomlin has not micromanaged him, though he runs new ideas by the head coach as they come. Hitters will play; passive tacklers won't.
"We're going to experiment a little bit more [this week] to see if it really works in pads," said Butler about this week's training camp sessions.
Butler knew that LeBeau, now an assistant with the Titans, still wanted to coach. That's what made the phone call so difficult. LeBeau told Butler, "That's football."
"All the parties really came out pretty well," Butler said. "Hopefully after a year or so we can go back to start playing golf together again."