The Steel Curtain, they called them: L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Joe Greene, Dwight White. • No defensive line in history became as famous; none with the Steelers has come close to being as celebrated. They just could not find that kind of talent through the years, and they haven't lined up that way since 1982. • The players who spawned the famous name came from a 4-3 defensive alignment -- four down linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, two safeties. They played that defense throughout the 1970s and dominated opponents using it.
Once those great linemen faded, the Steelers switched to a 3-4 in 1982, removing a lineman and adding a linebacker. It suited their talent at the time, former defensive coordinator Woody Widenhofer said last year.
The 3-4 proved the test of time, too. They've played it now for 31 consecutive seasons, the longest continued tenure of the 3-4 by any NFL team.
But now, is it time for a change? Time to switch back to the 4-3 for the very same reasons Widenhofer gave for switching 30 years ago: to suit their talent?
They had an abundance at linebacker for most of the past three decades. They no longer do. It began when they released James Farrior. James Harrison will be 35 next season and has a $10 million salary cap number on a team that again must make tough choices to get under it for 2013. The only other Pro Bowl linebacker on the team is LaMarr Woodley. Larry Foote will be 33 next season but is playing at a good level.
On the other hand, they have invested much more recently into their defensive line. They used two first-round draft choices on ends Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward. Another former No. 1, nose tackle Casey Hampton, is 35 and took a pay cut to play in what looks to be his final season. They used a fourth-round draft choice to take what some thought was his successor in Alameda Ta'amu but his status remains questionable for reasons on and off the field. They also have two other linemen they like, tackle Steve McLendon and end Al Woods.
How would a 4-3 alignment look in 2013 if, say, Harrison, Hampton and Brett Keisel, who will be 34 next year, were no longer here?
Start with the two top picks. Hood would play defensive tackle next to, say, McLendon. Heyward would line up at an end. That leaves one more end on the line. Woodley played there at Michigan and is big enough to play the position. Woods could be an option. Or Jason Worilds. They also could draft or sign one.
They could move Lawrence Timmons to outside linebacker, which suits his talents in the 4-3, with Woodley more likely the other rather than moving to end. That leaves the middle linebacker to Foote or Sean Spence, who is spending his rookie season on injured reserve. Spence also could play outside linebacker.
"We can do it," said Foote, who noted they have practiced the 4-3, especially last season when Harrison and Woodley were hurt. Just in case.
He also noted that coordinator Dick LeBeau, linebackers coach Keith Butler (coordinator in waiting) and coach Mike Tomlin all have worked with 4-3 defenses.
"We threw it in when our linebackers got hurt and we were down in numbers," Foote said. "... We had it to a point, we repped it and they were comfortable running it."
Woodley said he prefers to play linebacker in the 3-4 because his duties are more varied than when he played end at Michigan and mostly rushed the quarterback.
"Could we transition to it? Yeah, we can transition to it," Woodley said. "We have enough of everything to transition to it."
It's not far-fetched, again for the same reasons they switched 30 years ago to the 3-4: That's what the talent could dictate as their linebackers age.
Before there was RG III ...
The Steelers once had a mini-version of RG3.
Kordell Stewart did not start immediately like Redskins rookie Robert Griffin. He was not the accomplished passer like Griffin, but he had talent oozing out of every pore and the Steelers put it to use right away.
In 1995, Stewart played mostly as a wide receiver and the Steelers went to a Super Bowl. After Neil O'Donnell left as a free agent, Stewart again did not become the quarterback in 1996. He threw 30 passes that season while playing behind Mike Tomczak. While no quarterback has rushed for 100 yards against the Steelers since the Eagles' Jack Concannon in 1966, it hasn't been so long since the Steelers had a quarterback rush for 100. Stewart. He did it in the final game of the 1996 season when he ran for 102 against Carolina.
Stewart started in '97 and helped lead the Steelers to within a whisper of beating John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game.
There were some difficult seasons between 1998 and 2000 as Bill Cowher went through three offensive coordinators. One of them, Kevin Gilbride, tried to make Stewart a pocket quarterback. Stewart once ran for a touchdown and Gilbride berated him for not passing the ball instead.
In 2000, the Steelers decided they'd had enough of Stewart and signed a water buffalo named Kent Graham. After a 1-3 start and an injury to Graham, Stewart replaced him, and the team won 8 of 12 to nearly make the playoffs at 9-7.
Cowher fired Gilbride and promoted Mike Mularkey in 2001, and Stewart had his best season under his fifth coordinator. He completed 60 percent of his passes, the Steelers went 13-3 and reached the AFC championship game again.
His teammates voted Stewart their MVP and he made the Pro Bowl. Yet just three games into the 2002 season, Stewart was benched in favor of Tommy Maddox. Ironically, he had his best completion percentage at 65 percent and started again while Maddox was hurt. He left after that season to sign as a free agent with the Chicago Bears.
So good luck, Robert Griffin. May your career continue to take off. But someone, someday may tell you to stop running because, you know, you make them as nervous as a knuckleball pitcher.