Don’t Hold Your Breath For Defensive Scheme Shift

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin came from a 4-3 defensive background before joining this franchise. He was the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings—a 4-3 team—for one season immediately preceding his current employment.

Prior to that, he spent five seasons coaching the defensive backs for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who at the time boasted a renowned defensive front four spearheaded by Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp.

His first season in Tampa Bay was spent under the tutelage of Tony Dungy, one of the more prestigious members of the Chuck Noll coaching tree, which was built upon the legacy of the Steel Curtain during the 70s.

So naturally, Tomlin must have wanted to convert the Steelers from the 3-4 back to the 4-3 when he took the job in 2007, right? Perhaps that was the case at the time.

But Tomlin is entering his eighth season in Pittsburgh, and the implication that he is just biding his time until Dick LeBeau retires to convert back to a four-man front seems to me more than a little bit tenuous based on the available evidence.

That seems to be exactly what Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Alan Robinson intends to say in his latest article, and I find little support for it from reality.

Robinson essentially argues that, because the defense has lacked desired effectiveness in terms of splash plays in recent years, and certain personnel decisions that he seems to feel can be pigeonholed into the 4-3, change could be coming down the line.

It is reasonable to say that change could be coming down the line, if only for the fact that it’s impossible to know the future so far in advance.

But beyond that, the support for the idea of an eventual change of defensive scheme to the 4-3 for the Steelers under Tomlin is not very compelling.

After all, has Tomlin not seen great success with the 3-4 during his tenure? And has he also not recently spoken about the decreasing significance of base defenses, which Robinson himself quotes in his article?

For some reason, he quotes Jamie Dukes of all people, who makes the baseless claim that the Steelers have not been able to acquire the personnel to fit LeBeau’s system. I suppose, then, that the implication must be that the personnel better suits a 4-3 defense.

Such as the textbook five-tech defensive ends, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, or outside linebackers that would be too small to hold up consistently against tackles as defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme.

Robinson writes that a 3-4 scheme would allow the Steelers to drop their linebackers into coverage more often. But a quick analysis suggests that there is no inherent, nor statistically significant, discrepancy between the frequency with which linebackers drop into coverage relative to front seven personnel scheme.

The title of Robinson’s article is simply “Steelers might switch away from their 3-4 defense in coming years”. They might.

But to merely say that something might happen in the future is not very compelling, nor interesting, and the case made in favor of the idea is quite lacking. In other words: if you’re a fan of the 4-3, don’t hold your breath.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Kevin Gobleck

    I’d rather stick to the 34 anyways

  • Paddy

    Just because a certain team wants to get faster does not mean a change in def. philosophy. I don’t see the Steelers changing anything other than players year to year. Having a guys like Shazier and Mitchell give a DC the ability to do some new things.

    Jamie Dukes get quoted a lot in the Trib, I think they think he’s an expert.

  • JB

    It was a nothing article. I believe that it also said that the Steelers ran the Nickel about 60% of the time last year, so technically that could be considered their “base” defense. I’ve seen articles like this for years, and all players say that their team runs a type of 3-4 and a type of 4-3 at times during any given game. it all depends on the situation and how you can match up with the opponent. Hopefully, getting linebackers like Shazier who can run will allow the D to stay in the 3-4 more often – but all in all, it doesn’t matter.

  • steeltown

    If that were the case they would’ve never let Hood walk, for all the grief he receives in Steeler nation he’s experienced, hard working and has never missed a game due to injury, he’s in his prime and is suited to play in a 4man front

  • srdan

    I think it’s silly to argue that because Tomlin comes from the 4/3 line that is what he is going to. He has been running a 3/4 for more years now as a pro. Let’s not forget that.

    Plus I think we are seeing a defensive scheme change anyway. Our DEs (Kemo, Smith, Kirchkie, Kiesel) were expected to eat up space (for lack of a better term) to allow our LBs to excel. I think in the newer scheme Cam is expected to get pressure. I would expect more of htat from Tuitt as well. Even Mac compared to big snack.

    Granted this change is due to playing to the players strengths. “if you have red paint, paint the barn red”. But nonetheless, it’s a change, and they knew these players strengths when drafting them.


    I may have been wrong in my thinking, but I’ve been saying the personnel was better suited for a 4-3 scheme for more than a year now. I think what Dukes (a local sportstalk on air guy here) is saying is the NT has been the missing piece to make the 3-4 work.

    I thought at this point in his career Woodley might have been better suited to play a 4-3 DE…water under the bridge now…I think they will keep 7 DL, and 9 LBs.


    Get your point, but imo it’s not silly…coaches are creatures of habit…the only reason PIT has been playing a 3-4 under Tomlin is he had a HOF DC running it and you don’t dare touch it.

  • srdan

    I agree with you on the creatures of habit. But his coaching career started in 2001 in the pros and he played the 4/3 for 6 years. Now he has been running a 3/4 for going on 8 years. So what is his habit?

    A lot of teams have moved to a 3/4 4/3 hybrid, but we seem to stay away from it. I can’t put my finger on it. I think with Ziggy around we maybe could have played a makeshift 4/3 last year. I actually don’t know a lot about this and am guessing.


    I’m not making any real claims here either…my point on habit…the system that you cut you teeth on from the ground up is what you know.

    There’s a reason that nearly every Dungy coaching disciple will try to run that Tampa 2…that’s what they know.

    It’s very rare for a HC promoted from a DC position grounded in a 4-3 scheme would actually hire a DC with a 3-4 background, but Lebeau was already here.

    8 yrs in a 3-4…yeah, I get that part but it’s still Lebeau’s system.

  • dgh57

    Exactly, then following letting Hood go we draft a true 5 tech DE in Stephon Tuitt who in theory at least should be a better fit in our 3-4 defense.

  • steeltown

    That’s exactly what OAK is doing with Woodley

  • Bill

    I don’t know what effect Tomlin’s past history has on the defense used but you need the personnel skills to run the defense you are going to employ. At present the Steelers seem to lack a 3/4 nose tackle and multi talented outside line backers needed to run a 3/4 defense (stop the run and rush the passer). McClendon is not an ideal nose tackle but he’d make a good 4/3 tackle; if Tuitt works out you have ends for 4/3. Shazier seems to have all the attributes of an outside linebacker in a 4/3. I don’t know about statistics comparing the drop of linebackers into coverage and letting the front four control the line of scrimmage and rush the passer; thereby freeing up the linebackers somewhat, but all a Steelers fan has to do is look at the Steelers of the 70S. They did exactly that. I know that was a once in a decade front four but there were others who did it. The point is: the personnel must fit the scheme (Dukes point) and the Steelers drafts seems to have given them players better suited to a 4/3. LeBeau isn’t going to change to 4/3 but if they want success as a 3/4 they better hope for a little magic to convert a couple of players on hand to those with 3/4 skill package!


    Good points.

    Tomlin…normally the HC will share the same scheme with the DC or OC depending on which side of the ball they came from.

    Personnel…this is it exactly and Dukes is more or less pointing out that players seem better suited for a 4-3…on the flip side…the people pointing out the sub pkg personnel that’s on the field the lionshare of the time would eliminate the NT anyway.

    In short…regardless of scheme…can you stop the run? If they can do that with regularity…Lebeau has a more athletic front 7 now…he will find a way to get pressure on the QB.

  • Guest

    Biggest difference between our 3-4 and others 4-3s was the 2-hole Dline..
    But last year we began to use the 1-gap 3-4 more consitently

    Hands in the dirt or not, with over and under shifts there is no real difference between 3-4 and 4-3 nowadays – except: your 4-3 d-liner might not be as versatile as the 3-4 OLB..

    Just look at guys like Von Miller playing the Sam position; on many snaps they have (1-gap) 3-4 concepts!!

  • Jonas

    The only difference between 4-3 and 3-4 is when your using a 2-gap line.. but the Steelers began to us the 1-gap 3-4 more consistently last year.

    Hand in the dirt or not, you can shift under or over and the you have the same techs upfront – perhaps, your 4-3 DEs aren’t as versatile as the 3-4 OLB..

    Just look at guys like Von Miller as Sam LB; on many snaps they basically use (1-gap) 3-4 concepts. The same with our 4-3 – I remember an 3-4 under (just compare to a 4-3 over) where Woodley lined up as an 6-tech and Harrison stayed back in the role of the Sam (except that Wood was in LB stand).
    Of course, the following coverage concept could have Deebo rush and Woodley drop, that’s on the specific D.Coordinator, but you know presnap looks and personel aren’t that different!

  • Jonas

    Although Mitchell still implements a kind of unique and successfull run stuffing technique, that in my opinion was Hoods main difficulty with our system..

  • Ike Evans

    Jaimie dukes is the worst

  • Johnny Loose

    Since OAK is using Woodley as DE I would assume they’re not worried about his weight as much as Pittsburgh was. I wonder if he improves now from a health/availability standpoint and also production. Interesting

  • steeltown

    Dennis Allen actually thinks he needs more weight. Bryan wrote about it back in March. Allen mentioned Woodley played DE in college and carried more weight, so he thinks with more weight he might actually stay healthier…

  • Johnny Loose

    I’m painting with a broad brush here, but with the ever-increasing athleticism on the field (passing league), I’ll take the 3-4 over the 4-3 for the simple fact I have a quicker OLB on the field as opposed to a guy like, say, Hood at DE. I realize stopping the run is priority number one. That’s why the DL in a 3-4 absolutely MUST occupy blockers and free up LBs to make the play. It’s much easier to do when you have a cog like Hampton was with a primed Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel etc. at DE. I believe many times, it took a triple team effort to keep Hampton at bay. If we could have 3 DL (Heyward, McLendon, Tuitt) all taking on double teams, I believe we get the desired effect of freeing up LBs to make a play. Or maybe I’m completely off base, sounds good to me though, in theory. I’m just trying to make sense of a 3-4 base defense without a true NT, even though we’ll be spending most of our time in sub-package D in the foreseeable future.

  • Johnny Loose

    Ok it sounded familiar, I remember now. Interested in seeing how that pans out. Crazy to think our scheme may have been the culprit for Woodley’s inability to stay healthy. I guess we’ll know this season

  • patrick Mayfield

    just to be a devil’s advocate here, sure the 34OLB is lighter than the 43DE but the 43OLB is lighter and more agile still. If a 4-3 team pulls a DT and adds a DB then it can arguably be a more effective vanilla D than a nickel 3-4 scheme because the 43DE are bigger to take on the OL and you end up with a decent 3 man rush and more speed on defense.

    What I like about the 3-4 is the flexibility to have that OLB drop into coverage and blitz the corner. You sacrifice something in individual pass rushers in the 3-4 but you get flexibility to keep the offense off balance.

  • patrick Mayfield

    How are the players better suited to a 4-3? We don’t have a 4-3 DE on this team at all. Heyward could move inside but he’s perfect where he is.

    Last year with Hood and Woodley you have half a point but those guys are gone. Typical Jaime Dukes to shoot his mount off based on old information.


    My thoughts were taken from LY, really since no NT has surfaced after Hampton…None at all…I think Heyward and Tuitt could drop a few pounds and play DE, back them up with N. Williams and Arnfelt …McLendon & Thomas & DT.

    Idk if you actually saw or read the entirety of what Dukes had to say…imo, he’s basically pointing to one position…NT

  • Johnny Loose

    the 3-4 OLB dropping into pass coverage is exactly what I mean. You’re not going to find very many 4-3 DEs that can drop into pass coverage. When it comes to transition to nickel, I see where you’re going with the whole stronger 3 man rush and more speed. The NT and DEs in a 3-4 seem to require a specific build/skill set, same with the OLB. These guys really have to be talented to do their jobs effectively.

  • patrick Mayfield

    We’ll have to disagree on there being no NT. I’m in the McLendon camp. Was McLandon off the field more than Hampton? If so it might be because it took 30 sec for Hampton to run on and off the field so he might have stayed at times when McLendon would have been pulled. When McLendon was on the field we didn’t get gouged in the run game.

    I think 3-4 DE have more in common with a 4-3 DT than a 4-3 DE. Like 70/30 more DT than DE. We’d be impossible to run against but pass rush would be terrible.

    I only saw a few words from Dukes quoted in the article so I don’t have the benefit of any extended context.


    LOL…I really like McLendon, but no, he’s not a prototypical 3-4 NT imo. Just not going to give you the consistent push up the middle and force the G to help like Hampton did…he’s tacked on more weight for the job, but I’ve always felt he was quick enough to play DE.

    On your assessment of the 3-4 DE…yes they have more inside run stopping responsibility than a 4-3 DE who is mainly containing the edge against the run.

    PIT is a base 3-4…I have no issues with it.