Just as I Thought Part 2: The Future Stillers 4-3
July 9, 2014
I was surfing through some recent Stillers articles when this Trib-Review headline caught my eye: “Steelers might switch away from their 3-4 defense in coming years”
Now where had I heard this before? Oh yeah, from me, right after the draft:
“Football’s become a passing game, and not only that, it’s become a lateral one. These days, offenses run more bubble screens and all sorts of side-line to side-line stuff… Defenders like Shazier, whose 4.38 speed makes him one of history’s fastest linebackers, bring both lateral-pursuit ability and versatility to the table... What’s more I believe he’s a Tomlin pick, and his arrival signifies that Coach will be looking to install a 4-3 defense once LeBeau retires.”
I bolded that last sentence for emphasis. As I said back in May, Shazier’s arrival suggested to me that the Stillers would be looking forward to a change in scheme, namely to a 4-3.
Here’s what the Trib reported in June:
“Playing a 4-3 would allow the Steelers to drop their linebackers, including the speedy Shazier, into coverage more often to counter fast-tempo spread offenses. The primary pass-rush responsibilities would shift away from their outside linebackers, whose production has dropped off, and to their interior linemen.”
Did you get that? Spread offenses, lateral motion, more speed in open space, basically all the stuff I’ve been talking about since May. As I suspected, the Stillers not only had a different idea of linebackers when they drafted Shazier, but a different scheme to use them in, too.
Remember, Tomlin’s your basic 4-3 Cover 2 guy; he adapted to the Stillers’ scheme because a) it was run by the great Dick LeBeau, and b) the Stillers defensive personnel at the time were better suited to the 3-4. That applied particularly to the linebackers.
I believe the Stillers had a change of heart last year when they saw the shortcomings of their cement-footed defense. The reason you’ve seen the Stillers D give up so many third-and-longs is simply because they’re s-l-o-w (and it’s a key reason for all those late-game collapses, too.) That goes especially for the linebackers; think post-big-contract Woodley plodding along at nearly three bills, and Larry Foote just plain plodding. Warren Sapp may be a loudmouth waitress-stiffing jerk, but he’s not wrong when he refers to the Stillers defense as old and slow.
I look for the Stillers to address this problem by drafting smaller, speedier linebackers, using four linemen up front as “protection” and assume more run duties (one of the reasons they drafted man-mountain Daniel McCullers). The LBs will be used more in pass coverage – which is suicidal with guys like Jumbo Woodley and Foote. It’s a simple equation: faster LBs mean more effective pass coverage – especially against the modern Gronkowski-type TE – and fewer third-and-long pass plays surrendered.
The Stillers already employ some 4-3 packages. Look for those to increase in the seasons ahead, and one day become the base defense itself.
The Dynasty Passes On
I couldn’t end without a word about the late great Chuck Noll. A lot’s been written about Coach, and rightly so, but there’ve actually been two great passings: Noll and Bill Nunn, the guy who scouted many of the legendary players who made up the greatest dynasty in football history.
If Noll was the architect of the Stillers dynasty, then Bill Nunn was the guy who went out and got the bricks. Nunn, the sports editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s premier black newspapers, was unmatched for his knowledge of and access to players from small black colleges. Nunn revolutionized NFL drafting, as few teams were looking back then at players from schools like Jackson State or Alabama A&M. It’s safe to say without Nunn there is no ‘70s dynasty, and if you think I’m exaggerating consider that without him the Stillers likely never land the following players: Dwight White, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Mel Blount, Donnie Shell, Glen Edwards and John Stallworth.
I’d also go as far as to credit Nunn with the Stillers landing Lynn Swann. Nunn’s exclusive access to game film of Stallworth left a lot of other teams in the dark about the wide receiver. The Stillers came dangerously close to drafting Stallworth with their first pick, as Chuck Noll had fallen in love with him. It was Nunn who played a key role in convincing Coach that Stallworth would be available later on – but Swann wouldn’t. Finally Coach gave in, and, luckily, the rest is Hall of Fame history.
As for the Emperor Chaz Noll, it was good to see such tribute to him on NFL Network, as this was a brilliant coach forever underrated and underappreciated. Noll ranks with Halas and Brown, yet there will forever be people who refer to him as “Chuck Knoll” or, my personal favorite, “Chuck Knox.”
Cool and cerebral, Noll cut a different figure from the many more colorful coaches of his day, and rarely appeared in public or did commercials. As football coaches go, his wit was dagger-sharp. He’s known for referring to his then-holding-out superstar running back as “Franco Who?” but my all-time favorite quote of Noll’s was this:
“Losing has nothing to do with geography.”
What better message to send to a city that had almost gotten used to its four decades of football futility? Here was hope condensed into seven perfect words. By the time the decade was over, Noll had brought pride to a town desperately in need of some, and proved the truth of his statement beyond all doubt.
As great as Noll’s dynasty teams were, in my opinion he showed his own greatness most in 1989, with players like Greene and Bradshaw long gone. After a disastrous 0-2 start that included 51-0 and 42-10 beatdowns, Noll rallied his squad not only to make the playoffs, but come within a Mark Stock drop of making the AFC Championship. He did it with players like Bubby Brister and Warren Williams. So much for the idea he could only win with Hall of Famers.
Without Noll and Nunn, there would be no Stillers Nation as we know it. Think about it: how many of you reading this weren’t born or raised in Pittsburgh? It was the great ‘70s teams that attracted so many fan followers to the black and gold, from all parts of the country – and the world. Without these two men, I doubt there’d have been quite the same following.
Chuck Noll was many things, including a connoisseur of fine wines. Here’s a glass of Brunello raised to you, coach, and your super scout, Bill Nunn. And if you don’t happen to have a bottle of red handy, don’t worry: an ice-cold Imp ‘n’ Ahrn will do just fine.