By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — The Steel Curtain would be proud.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ revolutionized defenses when they switched to a three-four some two decades ago, but for the first time during this training camp they worked Wednesday against a four-man front like when L.C. Greenwood, Mean Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes and Dwight roamed these practice fields.
However, this doesn’t mean the Steelers will be using the alignment often this fall. It’s just that the majority of the NFL uses a four-three defense, including six of the first seven teams on the Steelers’ schedule, starting with a preseason game against the Detroit Lions Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.
“We’re were going off the cards, giving our offense a look at Detroit’s defense,” defensive captain James Farrior said. “They go against us in the three-four every day in practice, and some other teams are switching to it.
“But as far as the four-three goes, it’s not too familiar to them. And this gives them a good look at it, especially the younger guys. And we’re going to see a lot of four-three early on this season.”
The Steelers didn’t run the ball against several four-three teams last season and went 1-3 in games against Tennessee, Chicago and Cincinnati twice.
Among their first seven games, including the opening three in the regular-season, the Steelers face teams with a four-three defense.
In the preseason, the opener with Detroit at home, Game 2 at the New York Giants and the finale at home with Carolina are against four-three teams.
Only the Denver Broncos in preseason Game 3 on the road play a three-four. The regular season opens with Atlanta at home, at Tennessee and at Tampa Bay, all four-three defensive teams.
“It’s very hard for these guys to see a three-four, blitzing defense the entire spring and in training camp and then go against a totally different defense like the four-three,” Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “Especially the assignment part of it in the running game.
“In years past, we’d just go play those teams. We never really practiced against the other team’s defense. But that’s really a disadvantage to the offensive line. So, we want to try to help them as much as possible. We still won’t use the techniques they’ll see, but at least we’ll know the calls and have a chance.
“Going back to last year’s Tennessee game, we opened against a great four-three defense,” Arians added. “And we struggled running the ball. We threw the ball pretty well in those games, but running it was tough. So, this is something we’ve addressed now, and we’ll continue to look at the four-three.”
Arians noted that gap-penetration and coverage there was the key to the four-three defense compared to the three-four.
Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks explained the situation.
“In the three-four, the D-line is trying to secure gaps, but the four-three guys are just blowing upfield and penetrating gaps, as opposed to gap control,” Starks said. “So, that’s a totally different look for us. And the majority of the NFL still plays the four-three, so it’s something we potentially could see a lot.
“Pretty much the entire NFC South has four-three teams, so they get ready for that every day in practice. For us, we face the AFC North and a couple other teams like Green Bay and San Diego that run the three-four. Only the Bengals run the four-three like most of the teams. So, this gives us a good look.”
A few veterans took the morning off Wednesday, but not James Harrison. The volatile outside linebacker practiced despite recent shoulder discomfort. Jason Worilds also returned after sitting out the final two periods Tuesday afternoon.
Tony Hills (ankle) and Andre Frazier (knees) were running, but still could be a couple days away.