There are things in life we can count on to happen every year about the same time. The most familiar of those are of course taxes and the swallows returning to Capistrano but there is suddenly another annual event that we Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans can look forward to and that’s the debate over the defense.
This debate centers on whether the Steelers will remain with their tried and true 3-4 defense or whether they will switch over to Mike Tomlin’s preferred 4-3.
This debate has been around since Tomlin took over the Steelers in 2007 largely because of his work as an assistant with Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay. Dungy was a strong proponent of the Tampa-2 defense and its’ been widely speculated that Tomlin would eventually move the Steelers in that direction.
The debate ended quickly when Tomlin chose to keep defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau who obviously runs the 3-4 system. The issue still comes up every year though as journalists and scribes look over the roster and start to see the ‘forest through the trees’ or so to speak. What they like to do is create talking points by suggesting that the most recent Steelers’ drafts have been about selecting defensive players who could easily make the transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3.
If you look at the top two picks in this year’s draft, I believe both Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt could play in a 4-3 system. While Tuitt is a prototypical five-technique defensive end, he has the athletic ability to do different things on the defensive line as he proved at Notre Dame. For Shazier, his overall athleticism is so off the charts that he could probably line up at safety and be OK. When the scribes see this type of ability they automatically start thinking about the annual debate once again.
Quite frankly this whole issue is pointless and you can thank NFL offenses for my feelings in this regard. The last several seasons have seen the Steelers spend more time in their nickel and dime packages than in their actual base defense.
Bill O’Brien, the new head coach of the Houston Texans, said this week that by his count, NFL defenses are close to being in these specialty packages almost 70% of the time. I have no reason to doubt O’Brien’s words. We’ve seen the Steelers move from 50% to 55% to 60% and there’s no reason to think the trend won’t continue as offenses keep going to three wide receiver sets as their base offenses.
What this all boils down to is Dick LeBeau. As long as he remains the Steelers’ defensive coordinator, the team is not moving away from the 3-4 defense so let’s just put the debate to bed for another year shall we?
Marc Uhlmann writes for and co-owns www.steelcityblitz.com. Follow him on Twitter @steeldad and follow the website at @SCBlitz. He can be heard weekly on Trib-Live Radio talking Steelers and is a blogger for ESPN 970 in Pittsburgh.