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Tim Benz: 2 reasons to love Steelers OLB switch; 1 reason to hate it

June 20, 2018 GMT

One of the biggest revelations that emerged from Steelers minicamp is the outside linebacker position swap between Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt isn’t just an experiment during organized team activities. It’s not a change-up the team is working on to keep opposing tackles off-balance.

Dupree practiced primarily as the outside linebacker on the right side. Watt usually was working on the left side. That’s opposite of last season.

After hearing defensive coordinator Keith Butler and the players talk more about it last week, it has become clear that decision is being done with long-term intent.

The are two major reasons to applaud this move. There is one reason to be critical of it.

The first reason for applause is it could help Dupree significantly. The Steelers still have optimism for Dupree because his strength and athleticism show up on gameday, even if it’s not seen on the stat sheet.

He frequently pushed back or rushed around opposing right tackles last year. Unfortunately, he did that dramatically enough he often ran too deep into the pocket and too far beyond the other team’s quarterback.

Dupree has a tendency to start a rush on the 30-yard line and wind up on the patio of the open end of Heinz Field. That allowed the QB to escape the pocket or step up into a clear passing lane on the right side.

This was a common complaint from fans and media throughout 2017. Butler gave credence to that gripe with his comments last week.

“What Bud did too much of last year, in my opinion, was he got past the quarterback,” Butler said. “To me, you’re useless when you’re past the quarterback.”

Augmenting that problem is most passers in the NFL are right-handed, so they easily could see how far upfield Dupree had gone as he blew past their natural field of vision. Working from the blind side more frequently in the new alignment, quarterbacks might not be able to exploit that flaw in Dupree’s game as much if it continues.

“Now, he won’t be as useless behind the quarterback because he can work back a little bit or he can go up and under where the quarterback won’t see him,” Butler said.

Secondly, the move could help the defense by Watt’s presence on the left side. If Dupree switching pans out, the quarterback will be scrambling to the defense’s left side more often. Butler apparently feels Watt will be better in contain duties.

“T.J. will be a little bit more disciplined in terms of how he is trying to contain the quarterback and constrict the pocket around him,” he added.

Expanding on that, Watt, who had seven pass break-ups last year, believes if the passer is rolling toward him more frequently, he’ll have an opportunity to bat down more throws.

“I’m presented more opportunities to bat the ball down when I’m on the left side. Even in this (offseason camp), I’ve been able to knock down more passes than usual,” Watt said last week.

Watt said the move will help him personally as well.

“I think I’m more natural on the left side just because I’m more right-hand dominant,” Watt said. “I can have a better dip and a better stab. I have more pitches I can throw on the left side.”

The only complaint about this switch: Why wasn’t it done last year?!

All of the discussed attributes seemed apparent to the Average Joe watching. Coaches had to be aware much earlier than us. So why wait?

“We had a rookie and another guy who hadn’t been in the league very long,” Butler said. “We didn’t think it was a good idea halfway through the season to switch them because we weren’t being unsuccessful in terms of winning games.”

No. But the defense became less successful at preventing points as the season went along. This is a classic case of Steelers coaches answering the “is it hard for the linebackers to switch sides in the 3-4 defense” question in a way that fits the narrative they want.

If they want to make it sound difficult, they say it’s hard to do.

If they want to make it sound easy before a change is made, they say it’s easy.

It was that way for weeks when the move was discussed about LaMarr Woodley, and years when wondered about Jarvis Jones and Alonzo Jackson. Butler has said both. So have Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau.

The 20/20-hindsight venting aside, switching Watt and Dupree is full of logic and should pay dividends for a Steelers defense that needs as much help as possible.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.