Steelers Poised For Switch To 4-3

As the rumors heat up, it makes sense for Mike Tomlin to install a full-time 4-3 defensive alignment.

Nate Orchard seemed to separate himself from what I initially believed to be a solid group of second-tier pass-rushers at the Senior Bowl.

After beating up on highly touted Ty Sambrailo in his bowl game, Orchard played so well at the Senior Bowl that he's moved into late first-round draft range.

But as I watched Orchard rain blows on the quarterbacks, I thought there had to be a better way.

Nothing against Orchard, but if he had the natural burst and power to inspire faith as a worthwhile pick at No. 22, it would've happened sooner. And now, two years after Jarvis Jones was taken in the first round, I don't see the Steelers trying to guess right on another 3-4 edge pass-rusher in the first round, particularly since they still believe Jones can develop into an edge presence.

As for the guys I liked going into the Senior bowl as second-tier OLB prospects -- Lorenzo Mauldin, Trey Flowers, Hau'oli Kikaha and Markus Golden -- they were being blocked.

It caused me to think back to something I wrote the day before the Steelers released James Harrison in March of 2013:

"As my deadline approaches, I'm arguing with someone on Twitter over who's a better 3-4 OLB draft prospect: Damontre Moore or Corey Lemonier. As if it matters. As if the Steelers will just find the next James Harrison on purpose, or because they're that much smarter than everyone else."

They're not that much smarter than everyone else, and anymore they're not one of a small group of teams picking from a vast pool of small rush ends who have to be moved to outside linebacker. That's how they got Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter, and we all know Harrison was a complete accident -- not just after the first two times they cut him, but even last season when they picked their best pass-rusher up off the scrap heap yet again.

Last season was even more difficult for a Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker to get to the quarterback, because in their 4-3 nickel -- that was used about 50 percent of the time -- the outside linebackers had to put their hands down and also worry about the run as defensive ends.

The times are changing, and perhaps it's time for the Steelers to change as well. Perhaps it's time they go to a 4-3 as their base defense.

I think it is time.

Before Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers came along and showed us all of the fun tricks that could be used in scheming four linebackers, we all knew the best way to win defensively was to "get there with four." The Steel Curtain was all the proof anyone needed. They didn't need to blitz and expose their back end, because the four men up front could get to the quarterback without any help.

The Steelers don't have those four men yet, but once Harrison leaves they certainly don't have five. And paying Jason Worilds another $10 million in tag money isn't going to change that.

But with the foundation that's in place, the Steelers are closer to putting together a quality 4-3 base -- which will require fewer moves in getting to their nickel -- than they are in rebuilding the 3-4 that got them to their last three Super Bowls.

Let's take a look at the talent on hand for a move to the 4-3:

Line: Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Daniel McCullers, Stephon Tuitt (Jones, Cam Thomas).

Linebackers: Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Sean Spence (Vince Williams, Terence Garvin, Jordan Zumwalt).

The linebackers are fine, but the line would need help. Jones could sub in as a pass-rusher in the nickel and push Heyward or Tuitt inside, and Worilds or Arthur Moats could be re-signed to push the other DE inside in the nickel if so desired. But an additional big man is needed -- to compete with McCullers -- and so is a true 4-3 rush end to provide depth and flexibility.

One 4-3 DE who showed as much in Mobile as the 3-4 OLB prospects was Kentucky's Za'Darius Smith. If they can't draft him in the second round, they could land Preston Smith or Owa Odighizuwa. And those are just the 4-3 DEs who were at the Senior Bowl.

The first-round pick could be a DT, someone like Carl Davis, the big man from Iowa who showed last week he could get to the passer after being freed from the constraints put on him last season by Kirk Ferentz's staff.

I'm not sure the names are important right now anyway, just that the Steelers are closer to changing their defensive alignment than they have been since the 1970s, thanks to the young linemen they've drafted in the last four years.

Of course we've heard this before. Every year, even when Casey Hampton was killing centers as a nose tackle, we've heard rumors that Mike Tomlin would switch to his more familiar 4-3. And this year, with the departure of LeBeau, the rumors are louder than ever.

While new coordinator Keith Butler was raised as a 3-4 player and coach, he can no doubt see that drafting a couple of players to provide depth for one alignment would be easier than piecing together 17 niche players for the use of two alignments.

And, really, there are too many other needs to provide that kind of quality for two defensive alignments.

No, the time is right to go full-time 4-3. The time is right to get back to fielding four who can get there.


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