A big topic when Mike Tomlin took over as Steelers coach three seasons ago was whether or not he would switch the defense from a 3-4 unit to his specialty, a 4-3.
He dispelled those thoughts by retaining Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator and keeping the 3-4. It was the right decision - and helped him win a Super Bowl - because most of the talent on the Steelers' defensive line and at linebacker was best suited for a 3-4.
However, the 4-3 talk could heat up again by the end of the season, especially with the news Wednesday that defensive end Aaron Smith will be lost for the season with a shoulder injury.
For a 3-4 to be effective, a team needs special players at key positions.
Smith is the perfect end for a 3-4 because he's tall, powerful, unselfish and can hold up blockers to free up other guys to make plays. But he'll be 34 next season coming off the shoulder injury and most likely won't be as effective in that role.
Casey Hampton is another special player because you need a strong nose tackle for the 3-4 to work. But he'll be 33 next year and will be a free agent in March with no apparent successor in place. Career backup nose tackle Chris Hoke will be 32.
Also, James Farrior has been the perfect left inside linebacker for the Steelers for years, but he will be 35 in January and has already looked a step slower this season.
This is purely speculation, but let's say LeBeau, 71, retires at the end of the season, and Hampton signs elsewhere.
The Steelers could switch to a 4-3 and move Smith into one of the tackle spots for the short term. Ziggy Hood, who right now doesn't look like a 3-4 end, could be the front-runner for the other tackle spot.
Brett Keisel may actually be a better end in a 4-3 because of his athleticism, and LaMarr Woodley could shift to defensive end, where he played at Michigan.
The linebacking corps could have James Harrison on the outside with Lawrence Timmons, who was projected out of Florida State as an outside backer. Farrior or Keyaron Fox could handle the middle linebacker spot until a replacement (high draft pick) is ready.
A little too much to think about right now? Yes, probably.
But when a team needs to replace an injured starter, like Smith, with a rotation of three players, it becomes obvious just how important it is to have special players in a 3-4 defense.
Those special players - Smith, Hampton and Farrior - are all nearing the end of their careers with the Steelers.
NFL Week No. 6
Game of the week: New York Giants at New Orleans, 1 p.m. (FOX)
Upset special: Tampa Bay (+4) at home vs. Carolina
Fantasy tip:?Without Smith in the Steelers' lineup, Jamal Lewis could be worth a start this week.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or email@example.com.