PITTSBURGH (AP) -The NFL season is nearly five months away, yet the Pittsburgh Steelers may send a signal as early as Saturday what their opponents must prepare for in the future.
Will the Steelers play the 3-4 defense or the 4-3? Right now, only coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau know, but the rest of the league may get in on the secret beginning this weekend.
The Steelers have long been the staunchest proponent of the 3-4 system, which relies on the outside linebackers rather than the defensive ends as the primary pass rushers. They've played the 3-4 almost exclusively since 1983, and they once were the only NFL team using the system fulltime.
They last relied on the 4-3 during their Super Bowl years in the 1970s and a few seasons beyond that, when defensive linemen such as Hall of Famer Joe Greene, Dwight White and L.C. Greenwood starred in the system. Then, the 4-3 allowed the Steelers to draft relatively undersized linebackers such as Jack Lambert and Jack Ham, both of whom became Hall of Famers.
While the transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3 would take some time - the Steelers' current personnel wouldn't allow them to play a 4-3 fulltime this coming season - the learning curve might be shorter if they draft several players more suited to the 4-3 than the 3-4.
Because of all this uncertainty, plus the fact they have far more needs then they did in former coach Bill Cowher's final few drafts, there are more question marks about this Steelers draft than any in recent years
The Steelers have been linked to players such as Pitt cornerback Darrelle Revis, Penn State linebacker Paul Posluszny, Florida State outside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and Nebraska defensive lineman Adam Carriker. Posluszny would almost have to play in a 4-3, while Timmons is a much better fit for a 4-3 than a 3-4. Carriker was told by the Steelers he reminds them of defensive lineman Aaron Smith, which means he probably could play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 - the same as Revis.
If the Steelers choose Posluszny, it would be an impossible-to-miss sign that they will be 4-3 dominant within a year or so. However, while Revis, Carriker and Timmons all visited the Steelers in advance of the draft, Posluszny apparently did not.
And, while it may not mean anything, but both Tomlin and Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert recently attended Florida State's pro day workout.
The Steelers have long had a policy of not discussing potential picks in advance, though Tomlin did elaborate when asked about Revis - a rising star who may be gone if the Steelers stay at No. 15 in the first round. They could also trade down lower in the first round and use the extra pick acquired in the deal to improve their depth.
``He'd be somebody that I'd be interested in,'' Tomlin said of Revis, who passed up his senior season at Pitt to turn pro. ``Sure. He's definitely a viable guy. I don't think his name is too far down on any of the 32 boards.''
However, it seems logical the Steelers would go for a defensive lineman or linebacker within the first two rounds. They are very thin at outside linebacker, with Clark Haggans, former backup James Harrison and not much else there now that Joey Porter is with Miami.
As the draft approaches, Tomlin has downplayed the possible switch in defenses, saying: ``Football players are football players. Guy who can make plays make plays.''
Still, several NFL coaches and player personnel directors think it is only a matter of time before the Steelers make the switch, especially given Tomlin's career-long preference for the 4-3. He used the system last year as Minnesota's defensive coordinator and also during his five seasons as a Tampa Bay defensive assistant.
There are other considerations, too, in switching from the 3-4 to the 4-3.
Because the 4-3 puts such a premium on pass rushers, requiring two large defensive ends and two tackles, plus outside linebackers who can move, it can be more expensive to build a 4-3 defense than a 3-4. Linebackers are always more widely available than premier defensive lineman, and thus are easier to replace - and don't cost as much up front.
Houston, for example, was so desperate to land a dominating pass rusher that it drafted lineman Mario Williams ahead of running back Reggie Bush a year ago.

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