The Steelers, led by new coach Mike Tomlin, have made it sound as if switching from their customary 3-4 defense into a 4-3 can be done as readily as calling it from the sideline.
Maybe so, if you have the personnel. The Steelers, as constituted today, do not have the personnel to line up in a 4-3 with any consistency. Pressed on the matter, Tomlin admitted as much.
The Steelers will have to draft some defensive linemen this weekend if they want to even think of using a 4-3 with any regularity in the coming season or perhaps 2008.
Their coaches have noted that the Steelers often used a four-man line in the past under Bill Cowher. But those defenses were used only in passing situations and were nothing close to resembling a 4-3 Tampa 2 system that Tomlin has coached for his six years in the NFL.
In that scheme, you need two big defensive tackles and two pass-rush-type defensive ends to play on early downs. The Steelers have three linemen capable of filling those roles, but not four. End Aaron Smith could move inside next to Casey Hampton, end Brett Keisel could stay put, but there's no one to play the other end and little depth behind them.
Outside linebacker Clark Haggans turns into an end when the Steelers move to their dime passing defense, but Tomlin acknowledged he could not play the position on every down.
"Nah, absolutely not," Tomlin said.
Then, the Steelers would need to find at least one more end?
"Absolutely," Tomlin said.
Teams have converted from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and vice-versa, and some switch between the two during a season. But you have to have the players to do it. More NFL teams have switched to the 3-4, a defense the Steelers once owned a monopoly on during part of the 1990s. Six played it last season.
"It's harder to find defensive linemen to play a 4-3 and pay for all of them," new Dallas Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said at the NFL meetings last month. "In this day and age, where salary cap is so important, D-linemen are the highest-paid guys. And to get the guys we had in Philadelphia with Reggie White and Jerome Brown and Clyde Simmons, there's no way you could keep those guys [in this day and age]. They didn't keep Reggie anyway.
"I think linebackers, in reality, are a little bit cheaper, and you can find more of them. You can find more guys who are instinctive, who can run. Some in-between guys sometimes are good at outside backer. It seems to fit better as far as the personnel and really the money that you have to spend on guys on defense."
Many linebackers are suited more to one defense than another. Former Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene fit better as a 3-4 pass-rushing linebacker. Penn State's Paul Poluszny is just the opposite. Like Jack Ham, he's a 4-3 outside linebacker, so much so that the Steelers consider him as an inside linebacker for a 3-4 defense.
Romeo Crennel changed Cleveland's defense to a 3-4 from a 4-3 when he took over as the Browns' coach in 2005, which he believes is tougher to do than what the Steelers are considering.
"That transition can be made a little easier," Crennel said. "The difference is the type of people you need to fill your positions, and you have to acquire those kinds of guys.
"Take, for instance, an outside linebacker that you make into a defensive end. Well, that outside linebacker can probably be a good 4-3 end on the open side but he might not be as effective on the tight-end side. That's one spot you have to identify, and you have to get somebody to play that spot for you. Sometimes, you're not able to get that done right away."
The Steelers made no attempts in free agency to acquire such a player. It will be interesting to see what kind of defensive players they draft this weekend. In his first mock draft, Mel Kiper gave the Steelers defensive end Jarvis Moss of Florida, although he has since changed that pick. They're not likely to take him, not in the first round anyway. If they would, it would be a sign they eventually want to use a 4-3 because Moss is a pass-rushing, 4-3 defensive end and nothing else.
Purdue's Anthony Spencer, on the other hand, could play defensive end in a 4-3 or perhaps linebacker in a 3-4 at 6-2 1/2, 261 pounds.
Crennel thinks Tomlin eventually will change the Steelers' defense to a 4-3 Cover 2 scheme.
"That's been his background, and he's had a lot of success with it,'' Crennel said.
"So, it wouldn't surprise me if that's part of the package. I know he's also been involved with some fresher packages, so I think what he'll try to do is he'll try to keep it as much a secret as he can and try to spring it on people when the regular season starts. But that's kind of tough to do with the kind of access and information that's out there. Everyone will pretty much know what they're going to play."
They might know a little more just by watching the Steelers draft tomorrow and Sunday.
NOTES --The Steelers plan to unveil a new uniform today that they will wear for one game this fall as part of their 75th Season celebration.Click photo for larger image.
The Post-Gazette counts down to the NFL draft Saturday-Sunday
Who will the Steelers take? Ed Bouchette makes his prediction. Also, he mock drafts the first round.
4-3 FITS, BUT ...Paul Posluszny Jack Ham-like 4-3 OLB, which is required to cover pass and stop run.Jarvis Moss Perfect 4-3 DE who can rush the passer.Anthony Spencer
A 4-3 DE with good speed, but would have to play OLB in 3-4.
3-4 MISFITSPaul Posluszny Pass-rushing demands make him question mark at OLB in 3-4.Jarvis Moss Too light to play 3-4 DE and is not a cover 3-4 LB.Anthony Spencer
At 261, would not have the size to remain at DE in a 3-4.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .