Even though the 3-4 defense has changed over the course of the past several decades with teams now primarily playing in nickel or even dime defenses, the general understanding of the alignment is that, like the 4-3 defensive end, it is the outside linebackers around which the formation is built, setting them up as the playmakers, particularly as pass-rushers.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have had a lot of great pass-rushers and some high-quality tandems over the years. The run that James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley had in the late 2000s and early 2010s may have been their very best. But T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree want to give them a run for their money.
“You look at a 3-4 defense and it’s meant for the outside linebacker to make that splash and make the big-time, game changing plays”, Watt explained in speaking to reporters earlier in the week, per Teresa Varley via the Steelers’ website.
“We can make an impact on every play. We drop in coverage. We make a lot of edge rushes and pass plays. We do a lot of different things. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We want to be our own duo. We don’t want to be compared to the legends of the past”.
Watt spoke highly of Dupree, commenting on how fast he’s looked in practice. He recorded two sacks last week and a pass batted down on a Watt pressure. “I think we are going to have a special year together”, he added. “We are starting to play off each other really well. We are just waiting until we can split a sack and sit down and have a picnic together”.
Harrison and Woodley used to speak in such terms, of meeting in the backfield, and it would certainly be great to be able to get back to that. Watt did record 13 sacks and made the Pro Bowl last year. Dupree is trying to put the finishing touches on his game as he heads into his all-important fifth season.
As he told the team’s website earlier, it’s “mainly on me” to put the Watt-Dupree duo into that discussion. “If I would have made all my sacks last year, people would have been talking about us being an awesome tandem this year”, he said. He plans on making sure they’re all talking this year.
The Steelers have led the league or tied for the league lead in each of the past two seasons, and the outside linebackers have certainly been a meaningful part of that, but they’ve also made plays in coverage. Watt had an interception in 2017 and six forced fumbles last year. Dupree returned an interception for a touchdown last season in addition to a forced fumble, and also had a career-high three passes defensed.
It’s worth noting that they are now going into their second seasons playing on the sides of the field they’re currently manning. They are also moving out from under the tutelage of Joey Porter and working under Keith Butler directly, with some assistance from Karl Dunbar. Will they help bring this tandem to the peak of its potential?