The Steelers welcome another member of the 30 Club to their maturing defense. This time it is the defense itself; the "34" turns 30 this season in Pittsburgh. • Installed in 1982 by Chuck Noll and Woody Widenhofer, his defensive coordinator, this will be the 30th consecutive season in which the Steelers use the 3-4 as their base defense, far longer than any team in the NFL.
"That's amazing, how time flies by," said Widenhofer, now retired and living in Florida. "Pittsburgh has made a tremendous commitment to that defense. They believe in it, and they go out and draft people who can play."
Since Noll and Widenhofer installed that defense -- mainly because linemen like Joe Greene, LC Greenwood and Dwight White retired -- the Steelers have had three head coaches and eight defensive coordinators, but the 3-4 has remained. At one point, they were the only team in the NFL to run it, and, for many years, only a handful of teams used the 3-4. Now, it's regaining the popularity that helped prompt the Steelers to trash their classic 4-3 that became famous as the Steel Curtain in the 1970s.
Steelers defensive coaches have massaged it through the years, and one -- Tony Dungy -- took some of its "cover two" philosophy with him to Tampa Bay. Another, Dick LeBeau, helped revolutionize the way defense is played in the NFL by introducing the zone blitz to the Steelers as part of their 3-4 in the early 1990s when he served first as their secondary coach before becoming defensive coordinator.
"The first group to really start playing the 3-4 in the professional leagues, widespread, was the AFL," LeBeau said of the upstart league of the 1960s that merged with the NFL in 1970. "They called it the 'Oklahoma' then, which was a college defense. The pros were pretty near all 4-3, they played some 7-man front and stuff like that, but most of it was 4-3.
"The AFL teams came in with the 3-4, and it became pretty much in vogue for a while. And then Dallas with that 'Flex' 4-3, once they started winning with that Flex, everybody started going back to the 4-3, and there was hardly anybody playing the 3-4.
"So it's been cyclical, and now the 3-4 is making a comeback. Four or five years ago, you could name only three or four teams playing the 3-4."
Both defenses play a front seven, the 3-4 using three down linemen and four linebackers and the 4-3 vice versa. The 3-4 relies on linebackers to get most of the pressure on the quarterback, a job that goes mostly to the ends in the 4-3.
Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham played his final season, 1982, as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 and said it did not fit him.
"It's good it was the end of my career," Ham said. "That would not have been a style I would have been comfortable with. I was not 245 pounds. Trust me, I wouldn't have played 12 years coming off the edge."
The 3-4 defense, though, has been good to Steelers linebackers. Starting with their first big pass-rushing linebacker, Mike Merriweather, in 1984, Steelers linebackers have been selected to 29 Pro Bowls, most of those outside linebackers.
The linebackers have become the stars of the 3-4, piling up the sacks and the attention that goes with those. Joe Greene, Dwight White, Ernie Holmes and L.C. Greenwood made the cover of Time Magazine. The big names of the past 30 years have been Merriweather, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, all outside linebackers. But even inside linebackers such as Levon Kirkland and James Farrior have made Pro Bowls in that defense.
They all can credit Lawrence Taylor, because his brilliance rushing the passer from his outside linebacker spot alerted teams to the possibilities using a 3-4 defense. Taylor burst into the league in 1981 and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in his first season.
"It was like a mass exodus from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense, and I think it was because of Lawrence Taylor," said Tunch Ilkin, an offensive lineman when the Steelers switched to the 3-4 in 1982. "People were realizing the wave of the future was those outside pass rushers, those 'tweeners.' "
Widenhofer said that in the 1982 offseason he studied the way AFC Central Division rival Houston Oilers played the 3-4 defense.
"We thought we had more linebackers than linemen, and we studied the Houston Oilers' 3-4 quite a bit," Widenhofer said. "We liked what Houston was doing with the 3-4 front, and Bum Phillips was quite successful with that. We went with it, and I'd say it's been very good for them for a long time."
Carnell Lake broke in with the Steelers as a safety in 1989, watched the new coaches install and teach the zone blitz in the '90s and has returned to coach the secondary this season.
"It's evolved over the years," Lake said of the way the Steelers play the 3-4. "I think it had to because offenses were trying to figure out how to defeat it. Maybe it's evolved because players with certain abilities come in, and you want to use him in this role, as before we may have used another kind of player in that role. I think those things have changed."
Brentson Buckner, who spent the past training camp as a coaching intern with the Steelers, joined them as a defensive end in 1994. Things looked different in the 3-4 back then, though the technique remains the same.
"I think it changes with the different styles of people," Buckner said. "Myself, Ray Seals and Joel Steed, we were more big bodies, we weren't as tall. Now you throw Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel out there, guys who are 6-5, and it looks a lot different, but it's pretty much the same thing, it's been consistent."
LeBeau has coached the 3-4 and 4-3 and has run his zone blitz in each, but he says the 3-4 allows for more versatility and puts a premium on speed. The jobs of the three linemen are, in simple terms, to take on the blockers and not let them get out on the linebackers, who swoop in to make plays. Good linemen also will push offensive linemen back, crowding the pocket for the quarterback and not letting him step into his throws -- or chasing him out of the pocket.
The current trio of Smith, Casey Hampton and Keisel likely is the best in the 30-season history of the 3-4 defense for the Steelers. Each has made the Pro Bowl.
"Every year, you look at Aaron and Casey, they don't have a lot of tackles, but they're the best at what they do along with Brett," said backup nose tackle Chris Hoke, who joined the Steelers as a rookie in 2001. "They take up their blockers, make you play. They do a good job making the play that comes to their gap. That's why James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison make so many plays. They have three good guys in front of them who take up their blockers."
They have been doing it for 30 years in Pittsburgh, and they have had so much success with it they may go another 30.