Matt Williamson
NFL Scout:

Mike Tomlin is the Steelers' new head coach and while his background is heavily based in the ever-popular "Tampa 2" defensive scheme, don't expect Pittsburgh to make that switch anytime soon. First off, the Steelers "Do what they do" - and they do it very well. Pittsburgh has been running the 3-4 since the early 80's and has had great success on the defensive side of the ball. Even though they hired Tomlin, Pittsburgh kept Dick LeBeau to run the defense. LeBeau is a 3-4 guru who understands the nuances of the defense extremely well. While Tomlin has a Tampa 2 background, he is also a very smart man and realizes what is best for this team. The Steelers will probably become more unpredictable and show some more four man fronts, but their personnel simply does not fit moving to the Tampa 2. On top of that, their offseason moves suggest that they are sticking with the 3-4 scheme for the long haul.

There was much speculation that Joey Porter was released because he wouldn't fit the Tampa 2 well. While that is true, the reason that Porter was released was because the Steelers didn't believe that he was worth the money he was set to receive. Porter's production has fallen off noticeably and he is no longer the dynamic pass rusher that the Steelers need in their 3-4 defense coming off the right edge. Also, a year ago, he made a fuss about being underpaid and such actions usually don't sit particularly well with the Rooney family. He is brash and a talker who doesn't live up to his own hype. In addition, Porter was widely known as one of Bill Cowher's favorites-Cowher is gone, as is Porter.

As of this writing, Pittsburgh was expressing interest in Tully Banta-Cain as a replacement for Porter. Banta-Cain is best suited as a 3-4 outside linebacker, the position he played in New England. Expect the Steelers' outside linebacking corps to look something like this on opening day: Clark Haggans will be the starting left outside linebacker, a free agent such as Banta-Cain will start on the right, James Harrison is a fine third guy who will compete for the right starting spot and relieve both players and the Steelers will draft a college defensive end who they will convert to outside linebacker high in the draft. A few players who could fit that bill are Purdue's Anthony Spencer, Florida's Jarvis Moss, Michigan's LaMarr Woodley or Georgia's Quentin Moses. Haggans, among several other prominent Steelers' starters, is due to become a free agent after the 2007 season and Pittsburgh should be preparing for his possible departure, as Haggans is getting up in age and they have more important players to use their resources on one year from now.

One of those free agents-to-be was DE Aaron Smith. Pittsburgh recently locked him up for the long term, which is one more clue that the Steelers' defense isn't going to switch to the Tampa 2. Smith is one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league and is somewhat of a prototype for the position. He is tall, very strong, able to handle a double team and he can engage an offensive tackle, press him away from his body and "two gap" in the running game. Smith could potentially move inside and play defensive tackle in the 4-3and he does slide in on throwing downs now, but he is not the ideal upfield penetrating "3 Technique" like Tommie Harris from the Chicago Bears who makes the whole Tampa 2 defense go. Pittsburgh would not spend a big wad of money on a guy like Smith right now if they were going to ask him to do something that they were not sure that he is capable of excelling at.

Lastly, for sake of argument, let's say that Pittsburgh was to exclusively go to the Tampa 2 right now with their present personnel. Nose tackle Casey Hampton would be a fine interior plugger in either scheme and would excel in the new system as he has in the 3-4. Smith would move to the "3 Technique" defensive tackle, which would line him up on the outside shoulder of the strongside guard. This move may or may not work out adequately, but really doesn't best fit his skill set. The Tampa 2 relies on a fierce pass rush from their front four, particularly the "3 Technique" and both defensive ends. The Steelers have zero players on their roster who fit the upfield Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis Colts) type defensive end that is needed for the Tampa 2. Defensive end Brett Keisel had a fine year as a starter for Pittsburgh last year, but he is a bigger guy who is no where near the explosive edge rusher of a guy like Simeon Rice (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Pittsburgh would have to add three true 4-3 defensive ends to their roster immediately to make this switch.

At linebacker, Haggans would not be a liability over the tight end on the strong side, but the other two spots would be a problem. The middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 needs to be an exceptional athlete with great speed and the range in the passing game to handle the deep middle of the field. Asking ILB James Farrior to perform these duties would be suicide. Farrior is a physical interior player who fits the 3-4 extremely well. He excels at taking on guards and fullbacks in the hole, but isn't going to cover Baltimore' s tight end Todd Heap or a slot receiver 25 yards downfield. On the weakside, ILB Larry Foote would have to be the guy for the Steelers. Foote plays on the weakside of Pittsburgh's two inside linebackers, but that is much different than playing in space as a run-and-hit linebacker in the Tampa 2. Derrick Brooks (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) is the prototype at this spot and while Foote is a fine player who is often around the ball, he is nowhere near the athlete or playmaker of a guy like Brooks or Lance Briggs (Chicago Bears). Going to the 4-3 would be asking a lot of round pegs to try to squeeze themselves into square holes. Remember, Pittsburgh is only one year removed from winning the Super Bowl and cannot afford to remake their entire defense.
Great article explaining the differences in what we have and what we would need to switch to a 4-3. I agree with most of what this guy has to say. Banta-Cain is already off the market so I believe the Steelers will move forward by drafting a DE/OLB in the first round and whoever that may be will compete with James Harrison for the job at ROLB. Won't be surprised if a DE/OLB goes high in next years draft as well!