2011 NFL Preview: 3-4 ... Shut The Door
A Legacy of Excellence
Friday, September 09, 2011
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers welcome another member of the 30 Club to their maturing defense. This time it is the defense itself; the "34" turns 30 this season in Pittsburgh.
Installed in 1982 by Chuck Noll and Woody Widenhofer, his defensive coordinator, this will be the 30th consecutive season in which the Steelers use the 3-4 as their base defense, far longer than any team in the NFL.
"That's amazing, how time flies by," said Widenhofer, now retired and living in Florida. "Pittsburgh has made a tremendous commitment to that defense. They believe in it, and they go out and draft people who can play."
Since Noll and Widenhofer installed that defense -- mainly because linemen like Joe Greene, LC Greenwood and Dwight White retired -- the Steelers have had three head coaches and eight defensive coordinators, but the 3-4 has remained. At one point, they were the only team in the NFL to run it, and, for many years, only a handful of teams used the 3-4. Now, it's regaining the popularity that helped prompt the Steelers to trash their classic 4-3 that became famous as the Steel Curtain in the 1970s.
Steelers defensive coaches have massaged it through the years, and one -- Tony Dungy -- took some of its "cover two" philosophy with him to Tampa Bay. Another, Dick LeBeau, helped revolutionize the way defense is played in the NFL by introducing the zone blitz to the Steelers as part of their 3-4 in the early 1990s when he served first as their secondary coach before becoming defensive coordinator.
"The first group to really start playing the 3-4 in the professional leagues, widespread, was the AFL," LeBeau said of the upstart league of the 1960s that merged with the NFL in 1970. "They called it the 'Oklahoma' then, which was a college defense. The pros were pretty near all 4-3, they played some 7-man front and stuff like that, but most of it was 4-3.
"The AFL teams came in with the 3-4, and it became pretty much in vogue for a while. And then Dallas with that 'Flex' 4-3, once they started winning with that Flex, everybody started going back to the 4-3, and there was hardly anybody playing the 3-4.
"So it's been cyclical, and now the 3-4 is making a comeback. Four or five years ago, you could name only three or four teams playing the 3-4."
Both defenses play a front seven, the 3-4 using three down linemen and four linebackers and the 4-3 vice versa. The 3-4 relies on linebackers to get most of the pressure on the quarterback, a job that goes mostly to the ends in the 4-3.
Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham played his final season, 1982, as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 and said it did not fit him.
"It's good it was the end of my career," Ham said. "That would not have been a style I would have been comfortable with. I was not 245 pounds. Trust me, I wouldn't have played 12 years coming off the edge."
The 3-4 defense, though, has been good to Steelers linebackers. Starting with their first big pass-rushing linebacker, Mike Merriweather, in 1984, Steelers linebackers have been selected to 29 Pro Bowls, most of those outside linebackers.
The linebackers have become the stars of the 3-4, piling up the sacks and the attention that goes with those. Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood made the cover of Time Magazine. The big names of the past 30 years have been Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, all outside linebackers. But even inside linebackers such as Levon Kirkland and James Farrior have made Pro Bowls in that defense.
They all can credit Lawrence Taylor, because his brilliance rushing the passer from his outside linebacker spot alerted teams to the possibilities using a 3-4 defense. Taylor burst into the league in 1981 and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in his first season.
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