Steelers might switch away from their 3-4 defense in coming years
The Steelers and the 3-4 defense form as indelible a partnership as there is in the NFL, a marriage of scheme and structure that's lasted through three head coaches and every trend NFL offenses could throw at it for 32 years.
The run and shoot? The read option? The spread? The wildcat? Never mattered to the Steelers — they stayed loyal to the 3-4 regardless of the NFL flavor of the day, even as offenses sped up and their own personnel slowed down.
But as the Steelers replenish a defense that was one of the NFL's best for a decade but recently isn't generating sacks or takeaways, might they be ready for a defensive cultural change?
“Mike (Tomlin), his strength is a 4-3 team,” NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes said. “They haven't been able to find the personnel that fit the style of defense that Dick (LeBeau) likes to play.”
Some recent Steelers personnel acquisitions — mobile linebacker Ryan Shazier, 330-pounds-plus linemen Cam Thomas and Daniel McCullers, playmaking defensive end Stephon Tuitt, safety Mike Mitchell — all seem just as suited for a 4-3 as they are a 3-4.
Defensive end Cam Heyward said the Steelers already incorporate some 4-3 looks.
“I think our nickel package is more of a four-man line,” Heyward said. “If we have to beef it up, we have some different fronts where we can add another defensive lineman, take a corner or a linebacker out. It all depends on the situation.”
Such a change likely wouldn't occur until LeBeau retires as defensive coordinator, but it would be a natural fit for Tomlin — who worked with 4-3 defenses in Minnesota and Tampa Bay — and linebackers coach Keith Butler, who also has a 4-3 background.
Playing a 4-3 would allow the Steelers to drop their linebackers, including the speedy Shazier, into coverage more often to counter fast-tempo spread offenses. The primary pass-rush responsibilities would shift away from their outside linebackers, whose production has dropped off, and to their interior linemen.
Another argument for the change: Over the past two seasons, the Steelers are only 22nd in sacks and 28th in takeaways.
So are the Steelers silently gearing up to shift away from the 3-4 — the defense that is so intrinsically linked to them that, in 2001, they were the only NFL team playing it?
“The NFL is a right-now league. I don't know that you draft today, running one system, then to draft for tomorrow and project that,” said NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots, who once played defensive back in LeBeau's defense. “When you're going grocery shopping in the draft, you don't look for groceries in July to cook for Thanksgiving dinner.”
Despite Tomlin's strong background in the 4-3, Wilcots wonders if he would go back to it given how hyperactive offenses are becoming.
“He believes the college game gives you players that are better suited for a 3-4 defense — like he said, it's hard to find a (Hall of Fame defensive lineman) Warren Sapp,” Wilcots said. “You do find a lot of outside linebackers who can put pressure on the quarterback. The way offenses play with the spread, the defensive guys come in ready to plug and play into a 3-4.”
Statistically, there's not much difference; the NFL's 15 3-4 defenses allowed an average of 345.9 yards per game in 2013, and the 17 4-3 teams allowed 350.7. And while the top three defenses all played the 4-3, so did the bottom three.
But here's the surprise: Analytics show that neither the 3-4 nor the 4-3 is the Steelers' base defense. And neither is the base defense for any of the other 31 NFL franchises.
Welcome to the era of sub-package football, which the Steelers played more than 60 percent of the time last season — and that was lower than many teams.
“About 70 percent of the games are played in nickel and dime defense because of the way the league is,” Texans coach Bill O'Brien said.
It's also becoming the Steelers' way.
A dominating nose tackle who can control the run and occupy interior linemen to create rush lanes for the linebackers is considered a key element of the 3-4, as five-time Pro Bowl lineman Casey Hampton was for a dozen Steelers seasons. Yet his replacement, Steve McLendon, played only one-third of the Steelers' 1,093 defensive snaps last season.
“I think in today's NFL, it's about situational football and what offenses do, and how many receivers they have on the field,” Tomlin said. “Oftentimes we spend a lot of time in sub-package football, whether you are in a 3-4 or a 4-3.”
With teams passing more than ever (the pass-run balance was 57 percent-43 percent in 2013), another defensive staple, the Tampa 2 defense that Tomlin ran as the Buccaneers' secondary coach, also is emerging on the NFL's endangered species list.
Passing offenses are becoming so sophisticated that a relatively basic scheme that relies on two safeties playing back-end zone coverage to control the deep pass can't fully contain all that's thrown at it.
Last season, NFL teams threw the ball 4,265 times more than they ran it.
“Obviously, I am a fundamentalist,” Tomlin said. “And that's a very fundamental defense, so I would never say it has run its course. But I really think the emphasis in today's NFL is about sub-package football because of the number of multiple-receiver sets you see.”
As a result, the traditional base defense is fast becoming an anomaly.
“In today's NFL, most times you have five or six defensive backs on the field,” Tomlin said. “And I really think that is the discussion, as opposed to whether you are a 3-4 or a 4-3, to be honest with you.”