Editorials

Steelers Fever – Defensive Scheme For Steelers Work In Progress

Defensive Scheme For Steelers Work In Progress

3-4 or 4-3?

Friday, April 18, 2008
By David Johnston
Steelers Fever Columnist
Edited by John Smathers

Mike Tomlin became the Steelers’ 16th head coach and as most good leaders know: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Steelers DefenseTomlin inherited a team just one year removed from a Super Bowl victory after a season swirling with rumors of Bill Cowher’s imminent departure, a pedestrian 8-8 mark and a rare view of the playoffs from the couch for the Steelers players.

So, Tomlin looked around and decided to keep things on as even a keel as possible. His Steelers would be tough and physical as always, would run first though look to throw a bit more often, and play smothering defense.

But what kind of defense?

Much was made of the lengthy discussions with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau before Tomlin’s inaugural season. Last year the Steelers defense continued to be a prototypical LeBeau unit: three down linemen with a dominant nosetackle (Casey Hampton, still the best in the 3-4 business) clogging the middle, and run stopping defensive ends allowing four linebackers to make plays and attack the offense.

This is Pittsburgh defense. This is what the fans are used to, and when everyone is healthy and playing on the same page, this is the defense that helped revolutionize the modern NFL. Nearly every defense now has some form of hybrid 3-4 scheme they can dial up.

But Tomlin came up in coaching at the altar of Tony Dungy and the Cover-2. This is a 4-3 scheme that does less attacking and more reacting. The Cover-2 very rarely gives up the big play, but it also creates fewer big plays than an attacking 3-4.

In the Cover-2 the key is four versatile down linemen, usually lighter and quicker than the down linemen in the 3-4. The linebackers are generally bigger and usually play in an assigned space as opposed to trying to get into the backfield on every down. If there’s a big play position in the Cover-2, it’s the safety. Think Bob Sanders of the Indianapolis Colts or Mike Brown of the Chicago Bears.

So, can these two coaches agree as they head into their second year together? Both men have similar experience and history. Tomlin turned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers secondary into an interception machine en route to helping that long-suffering franchise beat the Oakland Raiders for their only Super Bowl victory. Then he took a Vikings defense and made them number one against the run in his only season as a defensive coordinator.

LeBeau was an excellent cornerback, and since then has spent 34 years coaching, 29 of those years on the defensive side of the ball. He’s credited with inventing the zone blitz scheme, and the Blitz-burgh defenses of the mid 1990’s began to remind people of the Steel Curtain of legend.

Two great resumes, two different schemes, both generating success and victories – so is this going to be a problem?

The 2008 draft may give us a glimpse of things to come. Again, everyone is talking offensive line for the Steelers, but Coach Tomlin was quoted as saying the Steelers needed to get younger and faster on both lines of scrimmage at the end of last season.

Faster on the defensive line of scrimmage sounds more like Michael Strahan or Dwight Freeney than Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith. Freeney and Strahan both play in a 4-3.

Right now the Steelers have 3-4 personnel for the defense. The linebackers are all runners who can cover tight ends, running backs, and even some slot receivers, but they can also stop the run.

If the Steelers start to draft bigger linebackers or smaller defensive linemen, especially in the early rounds, there may be a shift in defensive philosophy.

I don’t expect it. LeBeau is still on the Steelers staff and he’s as dedicated to the 3-4 as the city of Pittsburgh is to the Steelers. But how long until Tomlin’s background and experience kick in?

My guess is the Steelers are a 3-4 defense as long as they dominate other teams out of that scheme. Too many games like last year’s regular season embarrassment in New England or the 200 yards surrendered to Jacksonville on the ground though, and those long talks between coaches could start up again.

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