My recollection of the football world of 16 years ago is not quite intimate enough to recall it, but to hear New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick tell it, there were only two teams back in 2000 that were running the 3-4 defense: the Patriots, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
What followed, of course, was an immense run of success for the Patriots, followed by a run by the Steelers, and, with teams using their successes as a blueprint, by the midway point of the decade, about half of the league had converted to the 3-4 defense.
Naturally, as a result of a greater number of teams employing the 3-4 defense, a greater number of teams were in the market for 3-4 outside linebackers, defensive ends, and nose tackles, which inevitably made those player types harder to come by, or to be more accurate, more costly to acquire, both in free agency and the draft.
It is a basic reality of supply and demand, making is costlier and more difficult to stock a 3-4 defensive roster with quality personnel and to hold it together through exposure to the free agency process, which has gutted many a fine defensive unit over the years.
This is where Belichick’s Patriots and Dick LeBeau’s Steelers defense began to diverge, however, because while New England’s philosophy under Belichick had always heavily valued adaptability, LeBeau’s is a more concrete one that is more likely to sand down the edges of a square peg a bit to fit into a rounded hole, rather than to carve out a new hole.
I have written about it in the past, including very early in the time after the Steelers and LeBeau mutually agreed to part ways last offseason, but I do believe one of the prime motivating factors, outside of their desire to promote Keith Butler and the push to do that with his contract up at the time, was the fact that his philosophy was not as amenable to the flexibility that head coach Mike Tomlin wished to see.
Improvisation and adaptability, as well as open-mindedness, are valuable assets in situations in which resources are scarce, as is the ability to meld a game plan to best fit the talent available, rather than attempting to mold the available talent to fit a particular game plan.
At a recent event, Belichick talked about all this, saying that the Patriots “had to find ways to capitalize on the talent that’s available”, because “otherwise we’re going to get the fifth-, sixth-, seventh-best guy at whatever position he is. So we’ve tried to take more of our way in areas that are less populated”.
The Steelers have been openly heading in that direction recently, varying their coverages, using their linemen to penetrate more, and even acknowledging that they are open to drafting a 4-3 defensive end under the right circumstances that they had not been before due to the amount of time they spend rushing four from a nickel front.