Mike Tomlin looked like the fastest-rising disciple of 4-3 mastermind Monte Kiffin when he became defensive coordinator in Minnesota after just five years in the NFL. After being chosen as coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tomlin spent eight seasons working with Dick LeBeau, among the most accomplished 3-4 coaches in football history.
It's safe to say he has an in-depth understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both defensive fronts from those master classes. And having first-hand experience rising to the absolute pinnacle - No. 1 in points allowed, No. 1 in yards allowed, and a Lombardi Trophy - by way of both paths, he's perhaps the least likely coach to tell you one way or another is intrinsically better.
Tomlin knows he can win and even dominate with either scheme. So why choose? It's the players who will make the scheme successful. Deciding what front to run is tantamount to putting scheme fit ahead of talent in terms of player acquisition.
Players like Courtney Upshaw, who started 14 of 16 games but played less than half the Baltimore Ravens' defensive snaps, or Tony McDaniel, who also had 14 starts, but played barely 40 percent of the Seattle Seahawks' snaps, are more commonplace in today's NFL.
The flipside to McDaniel is Clinton McDonald and Jordan Hill, who combined for 11 sacks the past two seasons while playing 44 percent of the snaps in sub-packages starting only one game between them. And Elvis Dumervil amassed 26.5 sacks playing 53.7 percent of the snaps, starting five games.
The simple fact is that players who can do it all are rare. Players who can do one thing at a high level are much easier and cheaper to find. This is, I think, the essence of Tomlin's focus on sub-package football.
The Steelers' last juggernaut defense was built largely on the strength of undervalued tweeners. Undersized defensive ends became linebackers, and undersized defensive tackles became ends. Since then, many more teams have adopted 3-4 looks or found other uses for such players.
But moving to a 4-3 doesn't offer rebates on front-seven players, either. A pass-rushing DT such as Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy will still cost you a top-five pick, and 4-3 DEs such as Mario Williams, Jason Pierre-Paul or Robert Quinn still come off the board in the top half of the first round. The athletes don't get cheaper or easier to find in a 4-3.
Which is why the concept of a multiple-front defense is so appealing. A friend of mine, who's a lot more tech-savvy than I, told me well in advance that Blu-Ray was going to wipe the floor with HD-DVD in their battle to control the next-generation home video market. And then he turned around and bought an HD-DVD player to stock up on cheap movies. Both formats provided a quality product, but only one ended up on sale at clearance prices. Adopting both formats allowed him to reap value wherever it ended up.
For the optimists, the discussion of whether to stick with the 3-4 or switch to the 4-3 is about whether you want Stephon Tuitt to be Aaron Smith or Reggie White. But the bottom line is that either front has a home for Tuitt, or for Cameron Heyward. Lawrence Timmons or Ryan Shazier should thrive in either front.
The complementary pieces should be less about filling positional needs and more about finding players with remarkable abilities. By running 3-4 and 4-3 looks, every player in the draft is fair game.
Finding value likely would mean following the Seahawks' and Ravens' example, looking to fill a need with two players with opposing strengths and weaknesses.
The Seahawks' defense is a natural place to look, not just because it's arguably the preeminent system in the league, but because Pete Carroll cut his teeth under Kiffin long before Tomlin worked with him in the NFL.
Carroll's 4-3 under base front is schematically similar to what Kiffin embraces but makes use of the type of players traditionally seen in 3-4, two-gap fronts.
The 4-3 under traditionally puts a penetrator at the under tackle spot to take advantage of a one-on-one matchup with a guard. Branch is hardly an elite pass rusher. But as a 3-technique player, he was able to dominate that matchup to control the line of scrimmage on run downs before giving way to a pass-rusher. His successor, McDaniel is a 6'7", 320-pounder who looks more like a big 3-4 DE than a prototypical under tackle.
Daniel McCullers splits the difference between the two with McDaniel's height and length and Branch's bulk. He would be a similarly curious fit at 3-technique. It didn't work in his last year in college, but it works for Seattle in its run-stuffing front. Against the pass, McCullers lacks the agility at this point to rush the passer in a traditional sense, but he has the power to drive a guard back and the length to disrupt passing lanes.
Steve McLendon, for his part, is a better fit playing 1-technique than as a 0-technique NT. The Seahawks' Mebane is perhaps the best contemporary 1-technique at using the tilted stance Joe Greene pioneered. And as far as I can tell, Mebane is neither quicker nor stronger than McLendon. On the rare occasions Mebane's turned loose to get upfield, he's usually been disruptive. The tilted stance would make it easier for McLendon to force the double-team and free up linebackers.
For what it's worth, I like the idea of trying McCullers in Bryant's 5-technique spot, allowing Tuitt and Heyward to penetrate on the opposite side. But while McCullers has ideal length to play on the edge, he has yet to demonstrate the agility for the position. Tuitt makes the most sense at 5-technique on the strong side. It's a position he's already shown an aptitude for.
Heyward is the team's best pass rusher, and while he's not a speed rusher by any means, on run downs, he has the tools to make the most of the opportunity to attack the QB from a wide angle, with the ability to seal the edge against the run.
Jarvis Jones, in this instance, would be the Sam linebacker, similar to the role Von Miller fills on run downs for the Broncos. With Tuitt covering up the right tackle, Jones would have easy matchups when the opportunity arose to blitz. And Timmons and Shazier would have no trouble with the other two linebackers.
All of the pieces are in place for a big 4-3 under front that could complement existing 3-4 looks and could help with outside zone offenses that gave the Steelers fits in the run game.
On passing downs, Tuitt and Heyward could move inside to make way for faster edge rushers. Or, if the team found a prototype 3-technique pass rusher, Tuitt or Heyward could remain on the outside.
For what it's worth, fellow Georgia alum Chris Clemons, a 236-pounder with unremarkable workout numbers coming out of college, might be the most reassuring success story for those who doubt Jones will ever pay dividends. Of course, Clemons wasn't even drafted, let alone as a first-rounder. But he had 46 sacks in 78 games under Carroll and Carroll-protégé Gus Bradley. As such, employing Seahawks-inspired 4-3 under looks might be the quickest way to determine whether Jones has value as an NFL pass rusher.
The Steelers also have the horses for a more traditional 4-3 under, like the one Tomlin helped coach in Tampa Bay. McCullers profiles well as a Booger McFarland-type 1-gap NT, and Heyward as a 3-technique on the right side (where he lines up most often as a pass-rusher anyway), and Tuitt as an LDE who kicks inside to on passing downs.
You don't have your Simeon Rice, but Tuitt's much more dynamic than Greg Spires was on the other side. If you get somebody who can be a prototype 3-technique, then you can bounce Heyward out to RDE. He's not Rice, either, but Marcus Jones had 20 sacks in 20 starts the two seasons before Rice got there. Heyward can do just as well. And then Booger McCullers jogs off the field on third down, and Jones becomes a pass-rusher.
I could draw a number of comparisons that, in my mind, demonstrate the ability for the Steelers to install 4-3 looks that would be successful. But the type of 4-3 scheme is less important than remaining open to acquiring 4-3 players, if the value is right.
Defensive coordinators always want to be more multiple and have different options. But the new options available in free agency and the draft by adopting a "hybrid" front are probably more important than the new options on the field.
And the idea of platooning players at multiple spots on the field, employing narrowly gifted specialists rather than more pedestrian, more complete players, is another benefit to a multiple-look, sub-package-heavy defense. Rather than the Steelers' recent history of longer apprenticeships followed by a full-time role, younger players would compete for smaller chunks of playing time filling simple, specific roles in packages.
A standout run defender like Vince Williams would always have a role, whether he was playing 25 percent of the snaps or 75 percent. And when he was on the field, teams would try to throw on him to target perceived deficiencies in coverage. Conversely, when Sean Spence was on the field, teams would try to test his ability to play the run.
As such, limited, one-dimensional defenders would be able to contribute their strengths to the team effort and work on their weaknesses. Some role players would gradually grow into complete players. But the whole time, the run-downs specialists and the passing-downs specialists would be competing with each other for a bigger share of playing time.
The downside is that you'd need more players to fill different roles on the team, but the upside is more young players on the field gaining experience, and less wear and tear on the team as a whole.
And that internal competition that's the biggest draw to the hybrid approach. Rather than 11 starters on the defense, you have 11 or 12 front-seven players vying for seven (often six) roles on the front of the line. That type of week-in, week-out competition to see whose sub-package is most effective and needs to be on the field more brings out a much better effort than the winner-take-all approach of handing out starting jobs. It's the free market at work.
For all of those reasons, it makes sense that, when faced with the question of sticking with the 3-4 front or moving to a 4-3 front, Tomlin should decide to have it both ways.