Continuity -- and defense -- win in Pittsburgh

Rick Gosselin

Bum Phillips introduced the 3-4 defense to the NFL in 1974 as the defensive coordinator of the Houston Oilers. When he became the head coach of the Oilers the following season, Phillips rode that sack-happy defensive scheme to two AFC title games by the end of the decade.

Since then, every NFL team has dabbled with the 3-4 defense. There was a full-bore sprint to the 3-4 after the Raiders and 49ers won back-to-back Super Bowls with it in 1980-81. By 1983 only seven of the NFL’s 28 teams were still lining up in a 4-3. By 1985, the number of 4-3 teams had dwindled to five.

The Raiders would win another Super Bowl in the 1980s in the 3-4, as did the 49ers. Then the Giants won a pair of Lombardi Trophies with the 3-4. But most franchises tried and failed with that linebacker-heavy scheme and eventually welcomed the 4-3 back as their defense of choice. By 1995, only three of the 30 teams were still employing the 3-4.

One of them was the Pittsburgh Steelers, who implemented the 3-4 in 1983 and have remained loyal to the scheme for the last 37 years. And for good reason. Since 1983, the Steelers have led the NFL in defense seven times – three more than anyone else (Minnesota). Pittsburgh has captured 16 division titles and reached 10 AFC championship games in that span, winning four conference crowns and two Super Bowls.

Credit continuity of coaches and schemes. The Steelers haven’t changed coaches every four or five years like some franchises. Pittsburgh has had just three head coaches in the last 51 years. In 2020, Kevin Stefanski will become Cleveland’s seventh head coach since 2010. Ron Rivera will become Washington’s eighth head coach since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999. The Raiders have had 15 head coaches since 1983.

Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll implemented the 3-4 scheme in Pittsburgh in the 1980s. When Hall of Famer Bill Cowher replaced Noll in the 1990s, he stuck with the 3-4. But that was his background as defensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs. When Mike Tomlin replaced Cowher in the 2000s, he also stuck with the 3-4. But that was not his background. His NFL coaching roots were the 4-3 scheme of Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin at Tampa Bay. But if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. And the defense wasn’t broken in Pittsburgh.

Because there have been so few changes at the top of the coaching chart, Pittsburgh hasn’t been hiring new staffs with new philosophies over the years that have mandated a change in schemes. The Jets have flipped between the 4-3 and 3-4 seven times since 1983. Both the Cardinals and Chargers have flipped six times. Too often the switch means inherited players no longer fit the new scheme. The 4-3 places an emphasis on size, the 3-4 speed. Often that translates into a personnel overhaul.

But the Steelers have been looking for the same type of players who fit their scheme for the last 38 years. The defensive profile hasn’t changed. That gives them continuity in their scouting and drafting. They want bulk up front to play the run and occupy blockers and speed at linebacker to supply the pass rush.

So those undersized linebackers who didn’t necessarily fit the 4-3 scheme over the years were left for the Steelers -- and they gobbled them up. Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter and LaMarr Woodley all became Pro Bowl edge rushers for Pittsburgh and the Steelers didn’t have to spend a first-round pick on any of them. They claimed Woodley and Brown in the second round of drafts, Porter and Gildon in the third round and Lloyd in the sixth.

Pittsburgh didn’t lead the NFL in defense in 2019 but the Steelers did lead the league in both sacks (54) and takeaways (38). That defensive opportunism allowed the Steelers to stay competitive despite losing their franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season with an elbow injury in the second week. Pittsburgh finished 8-8 with two backup quarterbacks.

It was the third consecutive season the Steelers have led the NFL in sacks and the fourth time in the 2010 decade. Since the NFL began counting sacks in 1982, Pittsburgh has led the league six times – twice as many as anyone else.

The Steelers are one of the few franchises that still believes defense wins championships – and their defense will again give them a chance in 2020. That’s because decades of patience by the franchise has given continuity the chance to succeed. And it has.

Comments (1)
No. 1-1
brian wolf
brian wolf

Great article Goose ...

The Steelers have had an incredible amount of defensive talent going all the way back to the Noll era, not only with the linebackers you named but other players like Harrison, Farrior, Kirkland, Nickerson, Merriweather, Lake, Woodson, Smith, and others.

Should the team have won more championships ?
Possibly but you have to give the coaches a lot of credit for developing these players and giving their fans an intense, physical legacy to watch from week to week, year to year.

Had it not been for free agency player movement, more of these players would have made the HOF but the Steelers personnel department always kept filling the rosters with players ready to step up and continue the winning play.
To me, Lake, Lloyd, Porter, Nickerson, Farrior and Harrison, all have HOF cases ...

With the Steelers Shell, Polamalu and Cowher having to wait till next year for their induction ceremonies, hopefully Faneca can join them as well ...

NFL Stories