The Pessimist’s Take – Lowering The Curtain On A Three-Man Front

While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have gained some tangible evidence of improvement, improving their win total by three games and hosting a playoff game as a division champion for the first time in four seasons, there is no doubt that the team is far from a finished product.

No team, of course, is a finished product in the offseason. Every team loses players to free agency and retirement, and replaces them through the same free agency process, as well as the draft.

With all of the change that occurs during the offseason, it’s often difficult to predict how a particular team might fare. They may wind up holding the Lombardi trophy or the first overall draft pick when all is said and done.

In order to gain a better feel for not only the issues facing the team this year, but how those issues might play out, it’s useful to take the devil’s advocate approach. This is the pessimistic side of the coin.

Question: Should the Steelers actually consider a conversion to a 4-3 defense?

The Steelers have as part of their history about as much defensive success running a 4-3 system as anybody in the league. Of course, the Steel Curtain of the 70s was the bedrock of a dynasty that won four Super Bowl championships in six seasons.

When that unit eroded in the late 70s and early 80s, the Steelers made the change to a 3-4 front, which they continue to employ today. With the erosion of the team’s latest front, there are many who wonder if now is once again a good time for change.

Of course, a 4-3 look is not completely foreign to what the Steelers are already doing, when they go to their sub-package defense, but it’s not the same as converting entirely. Some have read into recent comments by new defensive coordinator Keith Butler that could be construed as experimenting with some four-man fronts.

But Butler has always been a 3-4 player and coach, and he just promoted two former Steelers 3-4 linebackers to replace him in his former post as the linebacker coach, which is the heart of the defense in this system.

They have invested a substantial amount in building their current front seven to run a 3-4 look. They have four first-round draft picks and two second-round draft picks potentially projected to start on opening day—players drafted to play in the 3-4.

To be frank, the Steelers defense as it’s currently constructed is by no means a finished product, but it’s a lot closer to looking like a 3-4 than a 4-3, and that would likely still be true even if they gear their offseason efforts to such a conversion.

And, of course, there has been no talk whatsoever about a conversion—just the opposite, in fact—so those hoping for years that the Steelers would make that change likely have some more waiting around to do. The decision to make the change to Butler now was in part to maintain defensive continuity rather than risk having him leave, and the 3-4 is what he knows.

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