Remember the 3-4 defense? It’s something the Pittsburgh Steelers used to run for a few decades, a change that they made after Joe Greene retired in the early 1980s. It had a good run of about 35 years here, and it see gets its cameo appearance here and there, but as defensive coordinator Keith Butler noted on Thursday, “it’s almost obsolete”.
Butler is, of course, speaking from experience, as he is the signal caller for a defense that has played with five or more defensive backs on the field about 80 percent of the time this season. in 284 defensive snaps thus far through the first four games, Pittsburgh has been in what used to be their ‘base’ defense for just 58 snaps, plus one snap in the goal line package. Everything else has been in nickel or dime.
Of course, the 3-4 is still the Steelers’ ‘base’ defense in the sense that it is the basic template off of which the rest of the defense is constructed. Whether in the 3-4 or the 4-3, the back four or five players in the secondary are largely interchangeable, but the front seven between the two looks can be dramatically different.
When a 4-3 team uses five defensive backs, they leave their four-man defensive line in place and take a linebacker off the field. For the Steelers and other 3-4 teams, they drop the nose tackle and usually hem the outside linebackers to the line, kicking the defensive ends inside to one- or three-tech positions.
According to Butler, this system still has its advantages, which is why they still operate out of it after all these years—aside from the fact that they have the personnel best suited for a 3-4 front rather than a 4-3 look.
What he emphasized more than anything is, of course, the versatility of the outside linebacker position, which has the advantage over 4-3 defensive ends of having a much greater level of familiarity with and comfort in dropping into coverage, something that the Steelers do with their outside linebackers more than the average 3-4 team.
“The good thing about [the 3-4] is it’s still versatile enough that you take your outside linebackers and make them defensive ends, and they already know how to cover people in terms of your pass coverage techniques”, he told reporters on Thursday. “They’ve already been taught that.”
Butler also said that the 3-4 front “helps us a little bit in terms of fire zones and stuff like that,” referencing the fact that it is a lot easier to disguise a four-man rush when you have a pair of ends that are as much a threat to drop into coverage as they are to rush, leaving open the ability to send an inside linebacker on the rush while keeping your numbers in coverage.
Seven-man fronts may be growing into a relic of football’s past, but it still has its imprints in how defenses are formed. While there are many who clamor for the Steelers to move back to a 4-3 look, Butler has some compelling reasons for staying with his ‘almost obsolete’ base.