Steelers Today - A Pittsburgh Steelers blog


The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 5)

April 05, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

April 5, 2009
By Donald Starver

Note:  This is part 5 in a series.  If you haven’t already read the previous chapters, please click the appropriate link below:

Part 1 (3-4 basics) 

Part 2 (The nose tackle)

Part 3 (The 3-4 defensive end)

Part 4 (The 3-4 linebackers)

In part 5 of our series on the 3-4 defense and how it affects the Steelers’ draft, we will talk about the final component of the 3-4 defense; the secondary.

The secondary consists of 4 positions; the right and left cornerbacks, the strong safety and the free safety.  These positions are known collectively as defensive backs.

The role of the defensive backs in a 3-4 and a 4-3 are basically the same.  Their jobs are to defend against pass plays, and to tackle any runners who might get past the defensive linemen and linebackers.

Based on the situation, the team may bring in a fifth defensive back (the nickel back ).  In other situations, they may bring in a 6th defensive back (the dime back).  There are even situations when a team might bring seven or even eight defensive backs onto the field (like a game-ending ”hail Mary” pass play).  However, these situations are unusual.

Depending on the scheme, the roles of the defensive backs may vary.  For example, some teams play their cornerbacks in primarily man-to-man coverage.  Others may mix in some zone coverage.  Some defenses require their cornerbacks to line up close to the line and jam the receivers as they start their routes.  Others, like the Steelers, tend to play off the line and give receivers lots of cussion.

The Steelers require their defensive backs to play a more integral role in run support than most teams do.  In fact, a cornerback who is not strong in run support probably won’t fare well in Dick LeBeau’s system.

The cornerback is the player who is primarily responsible for guarding the wide receiver.  He has to be able to run stride-for-stride with the fastest receivers, and therefore, they are usually the fastest players on the defense.

The typical cornerback is about 5’10″ tall.  However, as more tall receivers like Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, and Plaxico Burress emerge, as well as receivers with incredible leaping ability like Larry Fitzgerald, teams will need to find taller cornerbacks to defend them.  The Steelers’ Ike Taylor may be the new prototype, as he has the height, speed, and leaping ability to guard almost any wide receiver in the NFL.

The strong safety usually plays on the tight end’s side of the offensive formation (the “strong” side).  That is why he is called a “strong” safety.  The strong safety is usually the bigger and stronger of the two safeties.  He is also often the slower of the two.  He is often charged with guarding the tight end or any running  back who may leave the backfield.

A good strong safety will often be like a small linebacker on the field.  He will be excellent in run support, and is often known for delivering vicious hits.

The free safety is usually smaller and faster than the strong safety.  He typically lines up further back from the line of scrimmage than the strong safety.  He is usually the last line of defense in the defensive backfield.  He must have the speed and instincts to read long pass plays, and to quickly close the gap between himself and the receiver.  The free safety must also be able to play man-to-man on a wide receiver if the opponent utilizes a third wide receiver.

Interestingly, when you look at what is required of the free safety versus the strong safety, one might argue that former Steeler Anthony Smith was more of a strong safety than a free safety.  However, with Troy Polamalu entrenched at the strong safety position, the Steelers were forced to use Smith as a free safety.  He repeatedly failed to be the “last line of defense” against the New England Patriots, and that ultimately cost him his job.

Looking at this year’s draft class, there are a number of good cornerbacks in the draft, but few top notch safeties.  In fact, safety may be the weakest position in the draft.  There are no elite safeties in this draft, and there may be no safeties taken in the first round.


Malcolm Jenkins (6’0″, 194 lbs.), Ohio State.  Jenkins it probably the top cornerback in the draft.  He has good size, plays a very physical game, and is good in both pass coverage and run support.  He has Pro Bowl potential.

Alphonso Smith (5′ 8 7/8″, 193 lbs.), Wake Forest.  Smith probably has the best coverage skills in the draft.  He has great hands, and rarely gets beat.  However, Smith’s small stature may prevent him from ever being a #1 corner. 

Vontae Davis (6’0″, 205 lbs.), Illinois.  Incredible physical specimen.  Has size, strength, and speed that few cornerbacks can match.  However, Davis’ mental attitude has been questioned.  He has had problems with coaches, and talks non-stop trash.

D.J. Moore (5’10″, 182 lbs.), Vanderbilt.  Moore has great ball skills, but he is slight of build.  Does not play physical, and needs to improve his tackling.  Will probably be more of a #2 corner.  Probably not a good fit for the Steelers’ system, where physicality and run support are mandatory.

Sean Smith (6’2″, 215 lbs.), Utah.  Rare size with long arms.  He lacks top end speed, but has the height to match up against bigger receivers.  He is a converted wide receiver who is still somewhat raw at the CB position.  Teams will fall in love with his size, but his skills need development.

Darius Butler (5’10″, 178 lbs.), Connecticut.  Outstanding athlete who was very impressive at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine.  He has a thin frame, and struggles to break free from blocks.  He failed to get a single interception his senior year, and that will make some teams wary.  He has the ability to return kicks.  That will work in his favor.


As we mentioned earlier, there are no elite safeties in this draft.  However, here are some of the best that are available.

Louis Delmas (5’11″, 196 lbs.), Western Michigan.  Aggressive hitter with all the skills necessary to cover tight ends or running backs.  Plays much faster than his timed speed.  Played against questionable competition, but a good showing at the Senior Bowl may have made him the first safety to come off the board during the draft.

Rashad Johnson (5’11″, 195 lbs.), Alabama.  Played well in college, but lacks the ideal size for a safety.  Looks more like a cornerback.  Is a smart player who was a leader on his team. 

William Moore (6’0″, 223 lbs.), Missouri.  A big, physical playmaker who is great in run support.  Lacks top level speed, which will probably work against him.  He bites on fakes far too often.  He will need coaching at the next level.

The Steelers’ primary need is for a #2 cornerback to replace Bryant McFadden.  William Gay is already on the roster, but finding an upgrade to him won’t be difficult.    Vontae Davis would look good in black and gold, but his character issues will probably make the Steelers reject him if he is available.  Sean Smith has great physical tools, and would benefit greatly from Mike Tomlin’s DB teaching skills.

At the safety position, the Steelers need to find a replacement for Ryan Clark, who is getting older.   Louis Delmas is likely to be available at #32, but probably won’t last to #64.

To read the other installments in this series, click below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)

Subscribe in a reader

Add to Technorati Favorites

Top NFL Fan Sites

The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 4)

March 31, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 31, 2009
By Donald Starver

Note:  This is part 4 in a series.  If you haven’t already read the previous chapters, please click the appropriate link below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

In part 3 of our series on the 3-4 defense and how it affects the Steelers’ draft, we talked about the defensive end.  Now it’s time to break down the glamor position on any 3-4 defense; the linebackers.

The 4 in the title “3-4 defense” represents the fact that there are 4 linebackers in a 3-4.  Unlike the 4-3, where there are two outside linebackers (the Sam and the Will linebackers) and a middle linebacker (the Mike linebacker), in the 3-4 defense, there are two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers.  In the Steelers’ case, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are the outside linebackers, while James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons are the inside linebackers (notice how I subtly promoted Lawrence Timmons to starter).

While pressure in a 4-3 defense come from the four down linemen, in a 3-4 defense, the pressure comes from the linebackers.  At least one of the outside linebackers will be rushing the quarterback on almost every play.  Unlike the down linemen, the OLB’s rush from a 2 point stance, so they’re standing up.  The outside linebackers will almost always lead a 3-4 team in quarterback sacks.

The linebacker is probably the most flexible position on the field, and can be used in a myriad of ways.  Linebackers may blitz, they may stay in their area and protect a zone, or they may drop into coverage and guard a tight end or even a running back going out for a pass.

Because of the wide variety of things that linebackers are asked to do, linebackers come in many sizes.  Typically, linebackers will range from 225 pounds to 270 pounds, depending on their specialty.  However, former Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland often played at a weight of nearly 300 lbs.  Moreover, Kirkland was surprisingly fast and was reasonably good at dropping into coverage.

The two inside linebackers typically weigh around 240 lbs., and are expected to be quite athletic.  They must be able to chase down extremely fast running backs who penetrate the defensive line.

The two outside linebackers will typically be bigger than the two inside linebackers, since they have to face massive offensive tackles on a regular basis.  Outside linebackers in a 3-4 will generally weigh between 255 - 270 pounds and be quite fast.  Many 3-4 linebackers were actually defensive ends in college.  However, they may have been either too small to play DE in the NFL, or they may be able to play both DE or OLB depending on which type of defense their team runs.  The Steelers’ LaMarr Woodley was a defensive end at Michigan.

The Steelers don’t have a grave need at linebacker.  In addition to last year’s starters, Lawrence Timmons is poised to break into the starting lineup, Arnold Harrison was re-signed, Keyaron Fox is a solid backup, and Bruce Davis will have a year of experience under his belt.  However, you can never have too many linebackers in a 3-4 defense.  I won’t be surprised if the Steelers select at least one linebacker in this draft.

This year’s draft class is loaded with talented linebackers and “tweener” defensive ends who will be moved to OLB in a 3-4 system.

The top two inside linebackers in this year’s draft are Rey Maualuga of USC and James Laurinaitis of Ohio State.

Rey Maualuga is 6’2″ and weighs 254 pounds.  He is strong and extremely physical.  He can deliver punishing blows at the point of attack.  His best position will be the “Mike” in a 4-3 defense.

James Laurinaitis is a 6’2″ 240 linebacker from Ohio State.  He is a 3 time All-American, a very intelligent player, and some consider him to be the safest pick of this year’s linebackers. 

The best of the outside linebackers include Aaron Curry, Brian Cushing, Clint Sintim, and Clay Matthews.

Aaron Curry (6’2″, 246 lbs.) is viewed by many as the elite linebacker in this draft.  He has a rare combination of size, strength, and speed.  He is equally good dropping into coverage as he is in run support.  He is the most versatile linebacker in the draft, and will probably be the first linebacker selected.

Brian Cushing (6’3″, 243 lbs.) played DE, OLB and MLB in college.  Probably best suited to play strong side linebacker.  A sure top 20 pick.

Clint Sintim (6’3″, 249 lbs) is a strong, fast pass rusher.  He is a bit stiff, and struggles in coverage.  He was once thought of as a potential first round selection, but poor performances in Senior Bowl practices and a sub-par pro day have dropped him to the second or third round.  He probably won’t excel in a 4-3, but he would be a good pick as a rush linebacker in a 3-4.

Clay Matthews (6’3″, 246) is the third USC linebacker who might get selected in the first round.  Matthews played both LB and DE at USC.  He lacks the size to play DE at the next level, and will move exclusively to LB.  His size and skill set probably makes him best suited to play ILB in a 3-4 system.

In part 3 of our series, we outlined several college defensive ends who could potentially make the change to OLB in the NFL.  Here are two additional college defensive ends who will probably be best suited to play OLB at the next level.

Aaron Maybin (6’4″, 248 lbs.) is a unique player.    He is very experienced at dropping into zone coverage.  He is tall and has a tremendous burst as a pass rusher or in chasing down ball carriers.  However, Maybin is lacking in the strength department.  He has no bull rush, and struggles to disengage from blockers.  This probably eliminates him from consideration as a 4-3 DE.  His best option is as a 3-4 OLB.  However, he will need to spend lots of time with the strength coach at the next level.

Larry English (6’2″, 254 lbs.) played defensive end at Norther Illinois.  However, he lacks the bulk to play that position at the next level.  He has no experience dropping into coverage, so teams will be evaluating his potential to do so.  However, his overall speed and athleticism appears to translate well to the 3-4 OLB position.

 Because of the large number of linebacker candidates available in this draft, several quality linebackers will be available when the Steelers draft at #32, and a few may even be available at #64.  However, since LB is not a glaring need for the Steelers, they are much more likely to pick up a LB later in the draft.

To read the other installments in this series, click below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)

Subscribe in a reader

Add to Technorati Favorites

Top NFL Fan Sites

The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 3)

March 27, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 28, 2009
By Donald Starver

Note:  This is part 3 in a series.  If you haven’t already read part 1, please click here.  If you haven’t read part 2, please click here.

In part 2 our our series on the 3-4 defense and how it affects the Steelers’ draft, we talked about the most important position on any 3-4 defense; the nose tackle.  In this installment, we will take a look at the other position on the 3-4 defensive front, the defensive end.

In a 3-4 defense, there are two defensive ends.  The left defensive end lines up to the left of the nose tackle, and the right defensive end lines up to the nose tackle’s right.  Those three players make up the front line in a 3-4 defensive scheme.  Contrarily, in a 4-3 defense, the front line would consist of a defensive end, two defensive tackles, and another defensive end.

The roles of the defensive end in a 4-3 and a 3-4 are different.  In a traditional 4-3 defense, the defensive end is responsible for bringing the pressure from the edge.  The primary weapon of a 4-3 defensive end is his strength, speed, and athleticism.  The right defensive end is generally the faster of the two defensive ends, and he brings the pass rushing threat from the typical quarterback’s blind side (this is not the case for left-handed quarterbacks).   The left defensive end doesn’t have to be quite as fast, but he must be able to stop the run, since most right handed runners prefer to run to the right.  The  ideal 4-3 defensive end will be around 6’5″ tall, and weigh between 265 - 280 lbs.

The ideal 4-3 defensive end can beat his defender with either strength or speed.  But one way or another, the 4-3 DE has to get around the corner and either tackle the runner or pressure the quarterback.  Premiere 4-3 defensive ends include the Carolina Panthers’ Julius Peppers (6’7″, 283 lbs.), the Houston Texans’ Mario Williams (6’6″, 283 lbs.), and the Tennessee Titans Javon Kearse (6’4″, 265 lbs.).

The 3-4 defensive end is typically bigger than his 4-3 counterpart.  Unlike the 4-3 defensive end, the 3-4 defensive end is not primarily responsible for pressuring the quarterback.  In the 3-4, that responsibility typically falls to the outside linebackers.  Instead, the job of the defensive ends is to occupy blockers to allow the linebackers to be isolated against a running back or tight end.  In either case, the linebacker should have a decided advantage.

While the 3-4 defensive end won’t face double-teams as often as the nose tackle will, he must be able to handle the double-team on a fairly consistent basis.  That’s why the prototype 3-4 defensive end will typically be around 6’5″, and weigh between 290 - 310 lbs.  Many 3-4 defensive ends were actually defensive tackles in college.

If we look at the defensive ends who ended the season with the Steelers, their physical stats are as follows:

Nick Eason (6’3″, 305 lbs.)

Brett Keisel (6’5″, 285 lbs.)

Travis Kirschke (6’3″, 298 lbs.)

Orpheus Roye (6’4″, 330 lbs.)

Aaron Smith (6’5″, 298 lbs.)

Brett Keisel is the runt of the litter.  He is probably a bit light for a 3-4 defensive end.  Moreover, he is not as stout against the run as his predecessor, Kimo von Oelhoffen.  Kimo was 6’4″. 299 lbs.

Keisel does bring much greater speed than von Oelhoffen had, and Dick LeBeau has talked about moving him around like he does Troy Polamalu.  However, while LeBeau has talked about it, we have seldom seen that type of movement of Keisel actually utilized in games.  Some might even argue that Keisel would be better as a 4-3 defensive end than as a 3-4 DE.

With an understanding of what is required of a 3-4 defensive end, we can now take a look at the class of 2009 and see which draftees might be appropriate candidates for the Steelers to consider.

The first thing that jumps out at me when I look at this year’s draft class is that most of the top defensive ends are too small to play DE in a 3-4.  Many project to be 3-4 OLB’s at the next level.  Others seem more appropriate for a 4-3 than a 3-4.

Of the Defensive ends coming out of college this year, Tyson Jackson may be the only premiere 3-4 DE in the class.  Jackson is 6’4″ and weighs 295 lbs.  He is strong, and can hold up against the run.  However, he lacks the speed to generate adequate edge pressure.  This makes him best suited to play in a 3-4 defensive scheme.

Brian Orakpo (6’4″, 256 lbs.) is probably the top DE in the class.  However, he is best suited for a 4-3 defense.  In a 3-4 defense, he projects as a rush linebacker, not a DE.

Everette Brown (6’4″, 246 lbs.) is another 3-4 rush linebacker or 4-3 DE.

Michael Johnson (6’7″, 259 lbs.) has rare physical tools, but is much too small to play DE in a 3-4.

Aaron Maybin (6’4″, 236 lbs.) is another super-athletic player who will probably be best as a 3-4 rush linebacker or 4-3 DE.  Definitely not a 3-4 DE.

Robert Ayers (6’3″, 273 lbs.) projects as a 4-3 DE.  He has the frame to add weight, so he might someday be able to play the 3-4.  But at his current size and skillset, his best position in a 3-4 would be OLB.

Paul Kruger (6’5″, 265 lbs.) is a versatile player with a non-stop motor.  He is a very intelligent player who will be equally effective as a 4-3 DE or a 3-4 OLB.

Jarron Gilbert (6’5″, 287) is the only other DE besides Tyson Jackson who projects as a potential 3-4 DE who could potentially be drafted on the first day (likely a 3rd round pick).  Gilbert displays incredible speed for his size.  He is a bit raw, and is more of an athlete than a football player.  He played at a small school (San Jose State) against sub-par competition.  Moreover, he is not particularly physical, and is recognized for being fast rather than strong.   However, there are so few potential 3-4 DE’s in this year’s draft, that someone might take a gamble on Gilbert in the second or third round of the draft.  Because speed is his primary weapon, Gilbert may be more of a 4-3 DE than a 3-4 DE. He may even be a better candidate for 4-3 DT.  That is the problem with Gilbert.  It’s hard to determine what position he projects to at the next level.  But with so few 3-4 defensive ends in this year’s draft, he will certainly be considered for the position.  In my opinion, using Gilbert as a 3-4 DE will negate his primary weapon (speed), and accentuate his primary weakness (stoutness at the point of attack).

Despite the lack of quality 3-4 DE’s in the class of 2009, all is not lost.  I believe there are several defensive tackles who will be best served converting to 3-4 DE’s at the next level.

Fili Moala (6’4″, 303 lbs.) projects as the second best 3-4 DE in the class of 2009.  He has all of the tools to fulfill the role.  USC has 3 linebackers coming out this year who all have legitimate chances of being drafted in the 1st round.  They can thank Fili Moala for their success.  He occupied blockers for them the same way that a 3-4 DE must do for his linebackers.

Evander Hood (6’3″, 298) is another college DT who doesn’t have the speed or athleticism to excel at the position at the next level.  However, his size and strength may project well to the 3-4 DE position.

Sen’Derric Marks (6’1, 295 lbs) is a bit short and squat, but he might be able to make the transition to 3-4 DE.  He is a very good run stuffer who uses leverage to anchor himself against blockers.  However, his height is less than ideal.

With more and more teams playing the 3-4, the competition for players is becoming more intense.  This class is very deep in 3-4 OLB’s, but there are few quality 3-4 DE’s, and even fewer 3-4 nose tackles.  Teams that play the 3-4 will have to keep this in mind as they make their draft picks.  Some teams may have to reach a bit for players in order to make sure they get the personnel that they need to run the 3-4 properly.

Of course, this probably won’t be the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Steelers have always believed in drafting the best player available (BPA), regardless of team needs.  Therefore, we aren’t likely to see them reach in order to fill a need, regardless of how few candidates are available.

To read the other installments in this series, click below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)

Subscribe in a reader

Add to Technorati Favorites

Top NFL Fan Sites

The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 2)

March 23, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 23, 2009
By Donald Starver

In part 1 of this series, we did a primer on the 3-4 defense.  We talked about the unique characteristics of the 3-4, and how it impacts the type of players the Steelers select in the draft.  In this installment, we’re going to take a look at the most important position on any 3-4 defense; the nose tackle.

The nose tackle is the central figure in any 3-4 defense, and is one of the most difficult positions to find.  There just aren’t many athletes that have the unique characteristics needed to play nose tackle.

Nose tackle is probably the most physically demanding position in football.  His primary responsibility is to control the “A” gaps.  Those are the two openings between the center and the guards.  The nose tackle must hold his ground and not allow himself to be pushed back into the linebackers.   If the nose tackle is unable to do this, his team will be susceptible to running plays.

The nose tackle must be prepared to face a double-team on every single play.  This means the nose tackle must have tremendous stamina and endurance.  Taking on two offensive linemen who both may weigh over 300 lbs. is no easy task.  To do it for a full 60 minutes requires excellent conditioning, despite carrying around tremendous bulk.

This is one of the reasons why Mike Tomlin was so hard on Casey Hampton during the Steelers’ 2008 training camp.  Tomlin knew that Hampton could not afford to be out of shape.  The concern was not his weight, since the extra weight might actually prove helpful at nose tackle.  Rather, the concern was with Hampton’s endurance.  There is a very thin line between being an immovable, athletic nose tackle, and being a fat, out-of-shape slob.

That’s one of the reasons that NFL teams don’t simply import 600 lb. sumo wrestlers and plug them in as nose tackles.  While those guys may have the necessary girth, they don’t have the other attributes needed to play nose tackle.

The nose tackle must have tremendous size, powerful arms and legs, excellent stamina, durability, mental toughness, lateral quickness, solid technique, and an ability to generate maximum leverage.  In addition to all of this, the nose tackle must also have a unique mental profile.  He has to be completely selfless.  He must understand that while he will have to perform a more physically demanding task than any other player on his team, he will seldom be recognized for his work.  His best efforts will rarely show up in the statistics.  Moreover, the linebackers will receive all of the glory, even though the nose tackle actually does the heavy lifting.

3-4 nose tackles don’t have to be as fast as 4-3 defensive tackles, since they are not tasked with generating a pass rush like 4-3 tackles are.  In the 3-4, that responsibility fall to the linebackers.

The ideal nose tackle will be proficient at reading and reacting to offensive plays.  He must be able to quickly diagnose a play and know where the ball is going.  He must have quick lateral movement to fill either “A” gap before the runner can get through it.

The standard for nose tackles was probably set by Ted Washington.  At 6’5″, 365 lbs., Washington was an immovable man-mountain.  One AFC personnel director said that Washington “was huge, had long arms, and you couldn’t budge him.  He could hold off a 320 lb. lineman with one hand and make the tackle with the other”.

Current notable 3-4 nose tackles include the Steelers’ own Casey Hampton (6’1″, 325 lbs.), the Chargers’ Jamal Williams (6’2″, 348 lbs.), the Browns’ Shaun Rogers (6’4″, 350 lbs.), and the Ravens’ Haloti Ngata (6’4″, 345 lbs.).  Hampton is smaller than the others, but his low center of gravity and powerful legs allow him to generate tremendous leverage.

As a side note, you may have noticed that the AFC North is filled with big, powerful nose tackles.  This is why Sean Mahan was not a viable center for the Steelers.  He just wasn’t big enough to handle the huge nose tackles that he had to face in the AFC North.

The thing that makes it even harder to find a potential 3-4 nose tackle is that most colleges play a 4-3 defense.  Few college players have experience holding the point of attack.  Instead, most college tackles are asked to penetrate gaps and provide a pass rush.  They are skilled in moving forward, and are seldom asked to stand firm.

In the 2009 draft, there are only a handful of potential NFL nose tackles.  Two of them play for Boston College.

Boston College’s B.J. Raji is the top defensive tackle in the entire draft.  At 6’2″ and 334 lbs., he is viewed as a good candidate for either a 3-4 or a 4-3 scheme.  Raji dominated linemen at the Senior Bowl.  At Senior Bowl practices, he dominated highly rated offensive linemen Alex Mack and Max Unger.

Raji’s Boston College teammate, Ron Brace, is also viewed as a potential 3-4 nose tackle.  Brace is 6’3″ and 329 lbs.  However, because he played next to Raji, Brace never had to face double-teams.  It is unclear how well he will handle the double team.  Moreover, Brace had recurring back injuries in 2008.  That is not a good sign for someone his size.

Sammie Lee Hill of Division II Stillman (Alabama) College is considered another nose tackle prospect.  Hill is 6’4″ and 328 lbs.  However, the caliber of competition that he played against raises questions as to whether Hill can hold his ground against NFL linemen.

Michigan’s Terrance Taylor (6’0″, 308) was once viewed as a decent nose tackle candidate.  However, Taylor struggled in the East-West Shrine Game.  That raised questions in some scouts’ minds.  Additionally, Taylors’ conditioning has been questioned.

As we said earlier, top tier nose tackle candidates are rare.  Three of the four candidates mentioned above have significant question marks, and only Raji is viewed as a “sure thing”. Raji will probably be drafted in the top 10 picks, and will not be a candidate for the Steelers.

To read the other installments in this series, click below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)

Subscribe in a reader

Add to Technorati Favorites

Top NFL Fan Sites

The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 1)

March 22, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 22, 2009
By Donald Starver

As the NFL draft approaches, coaches and general managers are busy evaluating potential draftees.  However, players’ college statistics, physical attributes, and combine performances can’t be looked at in a vacuum.  Defensive players in particular, must be evaluated within the context of the specific defensive scheme that the drafting team will utilize.

For example, a particular player may be viewed as too heavy and too slow to play defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense, but might be perfectly suited to play nose tackle in a 3-4 defense.

Before we look at how the Steelers’ 3-4 defense impacts their requirements at each specific position, we first need to define the two key defensive front alignments in the NFL, the 4-3 and the 3-4.

The first number refers to the number of defensive linemen, and the second number refers to the number of linebackers.  So a 4-3 defense would utilize a 4-man front with 3 linebackers behind them.  Contrarily, a 3-4 defense utilizes a 3-man front with 4 linebackers behind them.

In a 4-3 defense, the pass rush is generated by the defensive linemen.  The linemen are tasked with penetrating the offensive line, getting to the ball carrier, or sacking the quarterback.  The defensive ends, in particular, must be able to apply pressure to the quarterback.  Examples of 4-3 defensive ends include the the Houston Texans’ Mario Williams, and the Carolina Panthers’ Julius Peppers.

The linebackers in a 4-3 defense primarily provide run support, and match up against the tight end.  While their role is important, the linebackers in a 4-3 front tend to play a secondary role to the defensive ends and defensive tackles.

In a 3-4 defense, the emphasis is on the linebackers.  The primary role of the defensive linemen is to occupy the blockers to free up the linebackers to make plays.  The pass rush in a 3-4 defense is generated by the outside linebackers.  Examples of 3-4 outside linebackers include the Steelers’ LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison, and the Dallas Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware.

While there are exceptions to this rule, in general, the defensive linemen in a 3-4 are bigger than the defensive linemen in a 4-3.  This is because each defensive lineman in a 3-4 should ideally be able to occupy more than one offensive lineman.

The outside linebackers in a 3-4 are also bigger than the OLBs in a 4-3.  This is necessary to allow them to take on offensive tackles. Many 3-4 OLBs were defensive ends in college.

The NFL is a copycat league, so many teams are moving to a 3-4 front due to the success of teams like the Steelers, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, and San Diego Chargers.  However, neither system is inherently “better”.  They are just different.

I often hear fans say, “I wish the Steelers would switch to a 4-3″.  This makes no sense to me.  As I mentioned earlier, neither system is better than the other.  There are plenty of teams that do quite well using a 4-3 defense.  The key is the team’s personnel.  If a team tries to implement a 3-4 defense without a dominant nose tackle, they are destined to fail.  Similarly, a 4-3 team that doesn’t have DE’s who can pressure the quarterback will not have much success.

The Steelers’ current roster lends itself to the 3-4.  They don’t have the personnel to run a 4-3 consistently.  In particular, they lack the defensive ends to provide pressure off the edge that the 4-3 requires.  They’d also need to draft a different type of tackle than Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke in order to run a 4-3 consistently.

The Steelers’ famous “Steel Curtain” defense was a 4-3 defensive front.  In fact, the Steelers played a 4-3 until 1983, the season after L.C. Greenwood and Mean Joe Greene retired.

The Steelers have used the 3-4 as their base since that time.  At one point in the mid-90′s, the Steelers were the only NFL team still utilizing a 3-4 defense.  This made it easy for them to get the “tweeners” that typically are converted to linebackers in a 3-4 system, and the oversized nose tackles the 3-4 demands.  However, with many more teams now playing the 3-4, the competition for college talent is much more intense.

Even within the 3-4 alignment, there are many different ways to execute the defense.  There are two primary versions of the 3-4 in the NFL.  The first has its origins with Bill Parcells and the New York Giants.  Parcells utilized Hall-of-Fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor in his 3-4 system, and led his Giants to the Super Bowl championship in 1986.  One of Parcells’ assistant coaches was Bill Belichick, who took Parcells’ system to New England.  Belichick disciples Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini spread his system to other NFL teams.

The second version of the 3-4 was developed by the Pittsburgh Steelers.  While the Steelers have used a 3-4 front since 1983, the current version was really developed in 1992 by Bill Cowher and his assistants, Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau.  Dick LeBeau has tweaked the system significantly since that time, but his system’s origins are clear.

The primary difference between the two systems is where the front 3 line up.  The Parcells-Belichick system is a two gap system which requires their front 3 to line up directly in front of an offensive lineman and control the gap on both sides of that offensive lineman.  Since they have to control 2 gaps, that system is referred to as a “two-gap” system.  The Steelers version is primarily a “one-gap” system.  The Steelers’ linemen play slightly to the side of their blockers, rather than directly in front of them.  They are responsible for controlling only one gap, while the linebacker behind them is responsible for the other gap.

“With the guys we have right now, when you play two-gap you tie them down”, said Steelers’ defensive line coach John Mitchell.  “Aaron Smith can run.  Brett Keisel can run.  Casey does a good job running.  We have good inside linebackers who can cover ground.  We can get away with a line playing one gap”.

Because of the differences in how they execute the 3-4, the Steelers and Patriots will look for slightly different characteristics in their draftees, even though both teams play a 3-4 defense.

In the upcoming installments of this series, we will look at each position within the Steelers’ 3-4 defense to see how that position is utilized, and who the Steelers might consider to fill that role.  First up, in Part 2 of this series is the most important position on any 3-4 defense; the nose tackle.

To read the other installments in this series, click below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

(If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment below. Also, please subscribe to our blog by pressing the orange button below. Thanks.)

Subscribe in a reader

Add to Technorati Favorites

Top NFL Fan Sites