Saturday, October 8, 2011

3-4 vs. 4-3 Defense: Is it time for a change?

It was recently suggested to me that the 3-4 defense the Steelers run had lost it's effectiveness and that it was time to move on from it. As preposterous as it sounded at the time, I've never been one to summarily dismiss a notion without first considering the facts. So neither will I do so here. Let's actually look at the two defenses, examine the differences and consider what experts have to say about the two.

The history of 3-4 defense in NFL dates back to 1974 when former Oklahoma Sooners coach Chuck Fairbanks introduced it in his second season as head coach of the New England Patriots. He used the 3-4 on nearly every down that season with Ray Hamilton as his Nose Tackle - the first one ever seen in the modern NFL. Though the Sooners mainly used a 5-2 defense up through the early 1970s, Fairbanks, considered the Grandfather of the "30 Front" 3-4 defense, introduced the basis of the 3-4 as early as the 1950s. Because of that, other coaches did pick up on this new style of defense. There were quite a few teams, therefore, who used it before the Steelers. Among them were New England, Miami, Denver, Oakland & Buffalo.

For a brief synopsis of coach Chuck Fairbanks and his Oklahoma years, follow this link:

It should be noted that Joe Collier, NFL coach and defensive coordinator for 30 years, coached with the Bills for seven seasons, from 1962 to 1968 in the AFL. It was there, at least as far as pro football is concerned, that the 3-4 was born, with Collier using it as first defensive coordinator and then head coach. “We initially used it in 1964, but we used it quite a bit against San Diego in 1965 in the AFL Championship Game,” Collier said of a 23-0 Bills victory that gave them their second straight title game victory over the Chargers, the top-scoring team in the league that year. “But for the most part, we didn’t use it. It was not a big part of our defense, maybe for just five or six plays." So this was the first time that pro football, not the NFL, but pro football saw the 3-4 defense.

So the suggestion of dumping the 3-4 defense begs the question: Is the 4-3 defense better? Or more pointedly, was the 1970s Steelers' 4-3 defense better? The Steelers switched to the 3-4 because of injuries and retirements. It wasn't as if Noll had a sudden stroke of genius, rather it was out of necessity. But with some tweaking and a player or two playing somewhat out of position, the 3-4 in Steeltown had begun. The Steelers are, in fact, the only team to strictly use 3-4 for last 30 years. But does that mean it's better than the 4-3? Well the Steelers defenses of the '70s were stellar to say the least, and full of hall of famers. The 1976 defense for instance is considered by some as the best defense ever as it allowed only 138 points over a 14 game schedule and completely blanked 5 of it's last 9 opponents. That calculates out to just 9.85 points per game. Simply devastating. The 1978 Steelers defense only allowed 195 points for a 12.19 points per game average as well. The Steelers also accomplished something no other team in the modern era has in representing the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award three straight years. No other team since the merger has accomplished this.

Then as all the stars of the '70s Steelers dynasty faded, the much dimmer '80s were endured. The team had meager success, only making the AFC Championship game once, after the 1984 season. The Steelers simply weren't as strong or intimidating either. From 1985-1992 the Steelers only recorded more than 40 sacks in a season once. In fact, in 1988 they only recorded 19. If you go simply by those numbers, awards and results, it would seem that a 4-3 defense is something the Steelers might want to consider again considering the pourous defense that has been witnessed so far this season. But as an analyst on the four-letter network is fond of saying, "Not so fast, my friend." There's a gentleman who might like to make an argument in favor of the 3-4. His name is Dick LeBeau.

Fans in Steeler Nation refer to the team as Blitzburgh because of LeBeau's Zone Blitz schemes in the 3-4. For years before LeBeau first became the defensive coordinator, he was the defensive backs coach. His impact, though, could still be felt as the likes of current Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake and Hall of Famer Rod Woodson terrorized offenses. Then when LeBeau was elevated to defensive coordinator, all he did was coach the defense to the no. 3 and no. 2 defenses respectively and a trip to the Super Bowl in 1995. Dick LeBeau, Coach Dad as he is also referred to at times by teammates and pictured above, left after two seasons as defensive coordinator, but returned in 2004 and has been here since that time. Under LeBeau the Steelers have only once failed to be in the top five in the NFL in defense, no. 9 in 2006, and have been the best in total defense three times. He's also coached two Defensive Players of the Year, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, and has been to the Super Bowl 4 times, winning 2 of them.

More information on the actual comparison of the two defenses is in an article written by senior analyst, Pat Kirwan. You can read the article here:

LeBeau, though, is himself a Hall of Famer and, quite simply, a legend. His Zone Blitz 3-4 schemes, mentioned earlier is built on confusion. Organized confusion. The fact of it is that it’s usually hard to decipher for opposing offenses. Pass rushers come from all different directions in a myriad of situations. On one play, they come from the left, then the next play from the right, or the middle. Sometimes, a lot of them will come, and on other occasions, few, or maybe even no one. There are so many things going on all at the same time, so many stunts, so many linebackers and safeties moving in and out of spots as the quarterback barks out the signals, that it can become a blur in trying to figure out who’s going to do what, and when. For years it's been that way. Until this year...

The 2011 version of the Steelers defense has only one turnover and only 7 sacks. Worse yet, the defense is being gashed on the ground, giving up two 100-yard rushers in 4 games. Not teams, individual runners. That is something that Steeler Nation simply isn't used to seeing from it's defense. At all. Since 2007 the Steelers had only allowed three 100-yard rushers. Again, there have already been two in four games this year alone. Thus the reasons for the article being written in the first place. Are these really signs that time has caught up with LeBeau and the 3-4? Is it time to revert back to a 4-3 defense? After all, Coach Tomlin did have major success with a 4-3 Cover 2 defense at his previous stops. Is this a possibility?

To answer this properly you'd have to ask whether the deficiences on defense are actually scheme related. That's key. Because, let's face it, the tool is only as good as it's user. If the defense is sound but the execution is flawed, then the fault lies not in the scheme. The best examples of this come from the Texans game in week 4. The Steelers found themselves succeptable to the stretch play on multiple occasions and were caught in a slant regularly. In one instance the nose tackle Casey Hampton was cut, and the outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley was hooked into a seal block. Because the inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons overplayed to the strong side, the running back Ben Tate found a wide open lane for a big gain. In the fourth quarter Arian Foster was allowed to run basically untouched 42 yards for a touchdown because Polamalu arrived late to the play and Woodley was caught embarrassingly out of position because he bought full-price the bootleg that Schaub was selling. So much so that whatever remaining chance Polamalu had of making the play, Woodley took it from him by colliding with Polamalu, freeing Foster completely. Things of this nature happened all game long.

It isn't just a matter of being caught out of position, though. There have also been missed opportunities and plenty of missed tackles. James Farrior had a chance to tackle Arian Foster in the backfield on one particular play and seemed to have him dead to rights. Foster fought through the grasp of much to easily and turned a loss into a big gain. These are examples of what has happened all year on defense. These are not scheme issues, these are plainly and simply matters of lack of gap sound execution, poor tackling and not being able to hold blocks that would normally free up the linebackers for pressuring the quarterback.

The good thing about this is that it's all able to be fixed. These are matters of getting back to fundamentals and playing your gaps and not getting caught watching the paint dry. Read, react and keep the feet moving. The Steelers know how to do this. LeBeau knows how to coach 'em up. This is, after all, the same defense that was no. 2 in the NFL last year and that went to the Super Bowl. So this isn't a scheme issue or a "The NFL has passed you, LeBeau" issue. It's an executon issue. This is absolutely something that can be rectified. It's like my poppa always said, "When ya done something wrong, when ya stray off course, what'r the directions back? Turn 'right' and keep goin straight." And the Steelers can certainly "right" themselves. They just have to be willing to roll their sleeves up and actually do it.