The 3-4 run by Pittsburgh is its own particular beast – masterminded by defensive genius Dick LeBeau, the Steeler set includes a dizzying array of looks – including the zone blitz, LeBeau’s own invention.
The 3-4 itself came to dominate the NFL when the league merged with the American Football League in 1970, LeBeau told USA Today in 2004.
"It's a cyclical thing," LeBeau said. “When the leagues merged, a lot of AFL teams played the 3-4, and that kind of spread to the NFL. A few years later, there was a period when almost everybody (had it)."
The Steelers began using the 3-4 when Bill Cowher became their head coach in 1992, but LeBeau said it was a dying art back then. The scheme came back into vogue, as many things do in the NFL, by way of the copycat factor. When the New England Patriots won three of four Super Bowls in the first part of this century using an innovative and complex version, “3-4” was the buzzword on everyone’s lips. If you have the personnel to run it, the advantages to a three-lineman, four-linebacker set are obvious – you cause confusion in the offenses you oppose.
"There's an element of disguise," LeBeau said. "You don't know which one, two or three linebackers is going to rush the quarterback."
LeBeau’s zone blitz, which he devised when he was the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive coordinator in the mid-1980s, adds to that confusion, and ostensibly prevents quarterbacks from finding their hot reads when pressured. The idea is to replace blitzing defenders with linemen who drop into coverage, confounding field generals and their pre-snap reads, and forcing them to either take sacks from disguised pressure schemes or throw interceptions into stealth coverages.
Seattle’s unfamiliarity with the kind of defense LeBeau runs could be a concern – the Seahawks have not faced this particular scheme, although they won all four games in which they faced a 3-4 team in 2005. There were the two victories against the San Francisco 49ers (yes, we know…), the 42-10 domination of the Houston Texans (right, we know that one doesn’t count, either…), and the seemingly impressive 13-10 win over the Dallas Cowboys (apparently, that win wasn’t impressive, although we’re not quite sure why – mitigating factors below). The Seahawks lost to the Patriots and their encyclopedic 3-4 in October of 2004, but that was when losing to New England was the thing to do, and the Pats had to fight off a furious Seattle comeback to pull that game out of the fire after going up 17-0 at one point.
So…why can’t Seattle supposedly beat this scheme, even though they already have? Could it be a lack of adjustment awareness?
“The whole offense is going to be a little bit different because of (it),” said Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander, when asked on Thursday how his squad would adjust. “The whole game is about angles, and the 3-4 has changed the angles that you see in a normal 4-3 or in an eight-man front. It’s just different, especially when you play against a team like Pittsburgh where they are just really, really good at it and they all do their jobs. It’s going to be a great challenge for us to do some good things.”
Due to the media hype which will surround the two teams, Seattle has an extra week to prepare, practice and draw it up on the blackboard, and that’s an advantage in Alexander’s mind. “It changes your angles,” he said of the 3-4. “It is something that you don’t practice everyday. It is something you don’t prepare for everyday. It is something that you are just not used to seeing everyday. Angles, blitzes, all those pickups, they change. That is the biggest thing about a 3-4 is you don’t have the time to practice (to counter it) like you do with a 4-3.”
Another Seahawk who will be concerning himself with the vagaries and variables of this defense is Walter Jones, Seattle’s unparalleled left tackle. First, Jones knows that the Steelers’ defensive complexity does not mask a lack of toughness. “They are not going to budge, and (they will) play physical,” Jones mused. “It is going to be a great challenge for us. The coaches are going to put together a great game plan, so hopefully we go out there and do our best.”
Jones also pointed out the similarities between this and another defense the Seahawks have seen this season. “Dallas played the same type of defense. They play you tough against the run. That is going to be tough. They are going to play that pretty hard against the run. We just have to go out there and match their intensity.” Although they beat the Cowboys 13-10 on October 3rd at Qwest Field, that game is the primary example used by naysayers. For one thing, Dallas’ 3-4 negated Seattle’s running game, limiting Alexander to only 61 yards on 21 carries. For another, the Seahawks scored only three points in the first 59:20 of the game, tying the game at 10 when Matt Hasselbeck hit TE Ryan Hannam with a 1-yard TD pass with forty seconds left.
The 6-play, 81-yard drive on which the tying touchdown was built is rarely mentioned.
Another factor not often discussed is that Seattle was without its top two receivers in that game – Darrell Jackson and Bobby Engram were unavailable due to various injuries, and this allowed Dallas to play the Seahawks’ offense as the effective, but one-dimensional unit it then was. Jackson and Engram will be back for the Super Bowl, and Hasselbeck is on the biggest hot streak of his career.
Still, the doubts persist – at least on the national level. Inside the Kirkland clubhouse, there is a valuable mixture of respect and confidence when Jones talks about the challenge ahead. “I am just looking forward to the challenge,” he said. “You look for the guys two-gapping you, getting contact, and then try to read off of that…(This defense has) been playing tough all season. You go out and want to do a good job. You put all that pressure on yourself to go out there and block those guys.”
According to Jones, Seattle’s already been putting the game plan together to negate the 3-4 defense nobody seems to think they can stop. “Everybody is on the same page and everybody knows what is going on and knows the checks. Going into this game we are feeling pretty good.”
Generally, when Walter Jones feels good, that’s bad news for a defense – no matter how, or where, they line up.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at email@example.com.