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.

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