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Is the 4-3 the Key to Restoring the Steelers Run Defense?

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Is the 4-3 the Key to Restoring the Steelers Run Defense?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have been an elite defense for over 50 years.  They have had a few down seasons, last year being one, but it’s easier to find seasons where they weren’t one of the top units in the NFL.

In 1982, Woody Widenhofer, who was the legendary architect of the Steelers 3-4 defense, transitioned the 1970’s Steel Curtain into what fans would come to know as the Steelers defense.  Dom Capers and Dick Lebeau would add notable wrinkles, but Pittsburgh became Blitzburgh, and the exotic packages have become a hallmark of the franchise.

Since the switch, the Steelers historically have been one of the harder teams to run against.  The calling card used to be that you didn’t even try to run against the Steelers because guys like Kendrell Bell, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland, James Farrior and Ryan Shazier have occupied the middle of a ball-hawking aggressive linebacking corps that played downhill against the run.  But in 2017, Ryan Shazier endured a career-ending injury on a freak play and the Steelers’ run defense has suffered ever since.  Note the chart below:

Pittsburgh Rush Defense Rank per

Attempts Yards Average TD

NFL Rank


498 2483 5.0 17 32nd


414 1783 4.3 13 11th


462 1753 3.8 7


2018 369 1538 4.2 13


2017 385 1693 4.4 14



It is no coincidence in my opinion that the slipping run defense over the last five seasons is a big reason why the Black and Gold have not won a playoff game since 2016.  It was gradual, slowly slipping over the last four seasons, to dead last in 2021.  Statistically it doesn’t look like a disaster except for 2021, but the recent history suggests that teams over the last few seasons lost their fear to run against Pittsburgh ultimately resulting in the disastrous 2021 outing when seemingly you could pull anyone off the street, and they would gain 100 yards against the Steelers.  I.E. D’onta Foreman, D’andre Swift, and Alex Collins are all capable professionals, but these were the type of players the Steelers would stuff not so long ago.

The Steelers currently have under contract Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, and Montravious Adams on the defensive line.  TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith are excellent pass rushing 3-4 linebackers who both play the run well.  I am not suggesting that the Steelers abandon the 3-4 set, but with the personnel they currently have, at the very least, they should consider mixing in 4-3 sets with a combination of Adams, Alualu and Tuitt at the defensive tackle spot with Cameron Heyward and either TJ Watt or Alex Highsmith rotating as the the other defensive end.  Now that Myles Jack has been signed, that group as down linemen could free up Jack and more importantly Devin Bush who has struggled to get off blocks to plug holes.  At the very least, a new strategy upfront would confuse offensive coordinators, and because Watt and Highsmith would both be on the field in the 4-3/3-4 alternating sets, it could confuse teams leading to big plays early in the season.

Head coach Mike Tomlin came out of the Tampa 2, 4-3 defensive scheme, and while he has coached the Steelers for 15 seasons, we have rarely seen any callbacks to those days, deferring to Dick Lebeau early in his career, and seemingly content to let Keith Butler continue to run a very similar version since 2015.  Tomlin of course has been rumored to be taking a more active roll with the defense over the last couple of seasons and while it has paid some dividends in pass defense, it’s been a miserable result on run defense.

Enter Brian Flores and his heavily influenced by Bill Belichick style of defense.  Flores and Miami ran a hybrid 3-4 and 4-3 scheme that was one of the top units in the NFL while Flores was the head coach.  Flores brings the Patriots swagger to his defensive calls and uses schemes to maximize talent.  He will not be the defensive coordinator but if Teryl Austin is wise, he will take full advantage of Flores working with the linebackers and mix in his ideas.  TJ Watt is a freak athlete, and he has had the freedom to pin his ears back and be a disruptor since his rookie season.  He has won on talent and motor consistently, but that won’t last forever.  Pittsburgh has the opportunity to pick Flores’ brain and update and out scheme teams in 2022.  That could be the difference in the Steelers making the playoffs and challenging for the AFC North Title.


What do you think, Steelers fans?  Please comment below or follow me on Twitter or Instagram @thebubbasq and hit me up with your thoughts.


I have been rooting for the Steelers actively since 1975. I love the Black and Gold and support them through thick and thin. I am a Navy Veteran, living in Jacksonville, FL and never miss a chance to go to the neutral site games here in Jacksonville. I am new to the Steeler Nation website, but I love discussing Steelers Past, Present and Future.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. tim

    March 17, 2022 at 7:18 pm

    Excellent article! Lots of talent on this squad AND coaching staff! Let’s hope they take better advantage of it than they have in past years. Tomlin content to never play his subs until he needed them to start. Get Trubisky in with some run packages every game, take advantage of the entire roster of talent, not just the starters. Scheme with the entire coaching staff….

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