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Savran: It's time Steelers adjust the defense

Saturday, February 01, 2003

The NFL tends to be a stickler for rules, even if it doesn't always understand or interpret them correctly.

One rule almost always enforced (I say almost always remembering Bill Cowher stuffing a Polaroid into a referee's shirt pocket) is that you're only allowed to have 11 players on the field at one time.

You can place your defensive players in any alignment you want, as long as it adds up to 11.

For the past 11 seasons, the Steelers have chosen to line up in a 3-4 configuration.

There's a buzz in town that maybe that defense has become obsolete, for a couple of reasons. The 3-4 is particularly good against the run, and one cannot argue the Steelers' excellence at stopping opponents' running game.

Much of the credit should go to the players, not the scheme, although players were acquired to fit the scheme. If you've got round holes, you find round players to fill them.

That you can stop the run with the 3-4 does not preclude you from doing the same against the pass. After all, the Steelers were the No. 1 defensive team in 2001.

But with the NFL moving into a passing mode -- the result of the Super Bowl notwithstanding -- is run defense still the priority?

Thus the question: Would the Steelers be better equipped to halt the pass using a 4-3 defense?

The second reason for considering a change is, the Steelers' version of the 3-4 apparently is no longer a mystery. Obviously, opposing offensive coordinators spent their respective off-seasons productively, devising plans of attack against the Steelers' defense.

Before we go any further, however, let's destroy the myth that the difficulties on pass defense were strictly a result of X's and O's. That was part of it. But the biggest reason was the poor performances by the personnel. Steelers' pass defenders often looked as if they were it in a 60-minute game of tag.

You can pretty much play anything you want if you've got enough good players.

That the bad guys figured some things out shouldn't come as a surprise. The NFL is a copycat league, and two things come as a result of having success. Other teams will take what you're doing and make it their own. Then they'll figure out a way to stop you from doing it.

Even though the Steelers fell a step short in 2001, how they compiled that 13-3 record didn't go unnoticed.

Imitation being the most sincere form of flattery, what will teams take from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers?

Something they already knew: It's better to generate a pass rush with four down linemen. That way, you don't have to blitz as often with as many people, which clearly gives you a better chance to defend the pass.

Now, it should also be said that part of Tampa Bay's success in neutralizing Rich Gannon came as a result of excellent coverage.

On many occasions he was forced into second and third reads, totally disrupting their quick-rhythm passing game. That gave the pass rushers more time to arrive at their team meeting, which was held at Gannon's feet.

The Steelers rush with four down linemen, except one of them 3/4 sometimes two 3/4 are linebackers.

But the way teams attacked with spread offenses, those linebackers often didn't get to go after the quarterback. They had to drop into coverage, which was damaging on two fronts. It kept the linebackers from doing what they do best and forced them to cover receivers, which isn't their forte.

Blitzing was restricted to inside people, or from defensive backs, which again leaves you vulnerable because you end up playing man coverage with defensive backs who aren't particularly adept at it.

I don't think the Steelers should abandon the 3-4. I don't think they have to. Let's remember that despite their deficiencies, they did lead the AFC in sacks. It could be argued that as many times as teams threw against them, they should have.

Nevertheless, combining the best of all worlds might be the answer.

Heading into training camp 2001, the talk was how the team would mix in some 4-3. They tried it in a couple of exhibition games for a couple of series, and that was the last of it.

Why not exhume that experiment? Maybe they'll have to go find a good pass rusher, whether he's an inside or outside guy. Maybe Rodney Bailey or Brett Keisel can handle it.

But you don't trade in your car just because it's dirty or has a dent in the fender.

The Steelers don't have to scrap their primary defense of choice. Just pound out the dents, add a few wrinkles, then polish it.

Which is exactly what the opposition did to them.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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