Inside the zone blitz: LeBeau and Capers help modernize NFL defense
For fans of technical football history, Super Bowl XLV is a zone blitz summit. It matches defensive coordinators Dick LeBeau of the Steelers and Dom Capers of the Packers, the Obi-Wan and Luke of the Fire Zone. Neither of them invented the zone blitz, but it was LeBeau who brought the zone blitz into the modern NFL as coordinator of the Bengals in the early 1980s and it was Capers who joined LeBeau with the "Blitz-burgh'' Steelers of the early 90s. Together, they re-created NFL defense and crafted a blueprint that's still the most popular in the game today. Now they will face off in an X's and O's throwdown that true whiteboard geeks can appreciate.
In the spring of 2008 I was beginning work on a book about the evolution of various football offensive and defensive systems. That book would become
In one of the most important plays of the most important game of the NFL's 89th season, a 242-pound, shot put-shaped linebacker intercepted a pass on the final snap of the first half and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown. The play was a bizarre sight, as the Steelers' James Harrison staggered the final 10 yards into the end zone where he collapsed and lay exhausted from the effort of lugging his dense, powerful body the entire length of the field, a body clearly not designed for such work. But it was the beginning, not the end, of this long, operatic play that fits more significantly into football history.
The situation: With just over two minutes remaining in the first half of Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, with the favored Steelers leading the Arizona Cardinals 10-7, Cards linebacker Karlos Dansby intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass and returned it to the Steelers' 34. In seven plays Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner moved the Cards to a first-and-goal at the Steelers' one-yard line with 18 seconds to play. It seemed a virtual certainty that the Cardinals would go into the halftime dressing room with a lead.
On first down the Cardinals lined up with Pro Bowl receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin (who between them had caught passes for 42 touchdowns over the 2007 and '08 regular seasons), both to the left side of the formation, both split, with Boldin outside Fitzgerald. The Steelers had six men on the line of scrimmage -- four standing and only two with a hand on the ground; but just before the snap three other defenders moved up close, into gaps, as if preparing for an all-out blitz. At the snap, from a stand-up right defensive end position, Harrison took a step forward.
In fact, Harrison was baiting Warner, giving the impression that he was blitzing, when he was actually planning to drop off into the middle of the field in a form of zone pass defense. The tactic is called a "zone blitz," a catchall phrase for any defense that blitzes from one area while dropping players -- linemen, linebackers or defensive backs -- into zone coverage in another area. These defenses are also called "zone dogs" (as in "red dogs," an old school name for blitzes) or "fire zones."
Warner, of course, knew all about them, and he knew that the Steelers and 71-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau loved them. "Pittsburgh lives off zone dogs," Warner had said in the spring before that season. "You see zone dogs everywhere, but Pittsburgh is so athletic and so skilled, they've really made it a part of their package. Against them, you're going to see it four, six, eight times a game. Against a lot of other teams, you might see it once."
In nearly 30 minutes of the Super Bowl the Steelers had not yet used a zone blitz. Warner took the snap, and the Steelers brought five rushers, not nine. But Warner was already convinced that he was going to be pressured heavily -- he expected Harrison to rush -- and needed to unload quickly. To Warner's left, Fitzgerald slipped outside and set a pick on Steelers corner Deshea Townsend, allowing Boldin to cut inside, where he looked momentarily free at the goal line. "Your instinct in those situations is to throw hot," Warner had said earlier, meaning to throw quickly to a receiver in an area theoretically vacated by a blitzer. Following this instinct, Warner looked for Boldin running into the area from which Harrison had blitzed.
Except Harrison hadn't blitzed. He had turned his hips to the outside and rotated out of the box and into the curl-slant area. "I never saw him," Warner would say after the game. He delivered the ball toward Boldin, but instead it hit Harrison directly in the hands, and 15 painful seconds later, the Steelers had a 16-7 lead and Harrison had made what LeBeau later called "the greatest play in Super Bowl history." (The Steelers would need another great play -- a toe-tapping catch by Santonio Holmes in the back corner of the end zone with just 35 seconds to play in the game -- to secure a 27-23 victory and their record sixth Super Bowl championship.)
LeBeau, more than anyone, could appreciate Harrison's zone dog. The seeds of that play had been planted more than a quarter-century earlier, when LeBeau embarked on a professional odyssey that would lead to a reinvention of defensive football.
A phone rings, and the writer answers. A voice on the other end says, "This is Coach LeBeau. You want to talk about the zone blitz?" It was hard to tell if there was a question mark at the end of the sentence. Maybe his words were a statement rather than a query, but the topic on the table was, indeed, the zone blitz. A request had been made through the Steelers' media-relations department. There had been e-mails and phone calls. All declined. LeBeau didn't want to talk about himself. Finally, there had been a letter -- old school -- sent to LeBeau's office. It was the letter that prompted the phone call.
"I felt like I should get back to you," says LeBeau. "The problem is, I want to write my own book someday, and I'm afraid I won't have anecdotes left." That was amusing, and a little poignant too. If anybody has a football book in him, no matter how many stories he's already told, it's Dick LeBeau.
He continued, "Plimpton took all my good anecdotes." Of course he had. George Plimpton, the iconic journalist-author, essentially invented the genre of participatory sports journalism with
When Plimpton arrived at the Lions' camp in 1963, LeBeau was already established as one of the best defensive backs in the NFL, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound starting right cornerback (a position he would hold for 171 consecutive games, from '59 to '71). He was a part of a Lions team that had gone 11-3 the previous year and finished second to Vince Lombardi's Packers in the Western Conference of the premerger NFL. LeBeau was also part of a truly outstanding defense that included future Pro Football Hall of Famers Joe Schmidt at linebacker, Dick (Night Train) Lane at cornerback and Yale Lary at safety, along with multi-time Pro Bowlers Alex Karras and Roger Brown (tackles), Wayne Walker (linebacker) and LeBeau himself.
LeBeau had come to Detroit from London, Ohio, by way of the Ohio State Buckeyes, where he started on Woody Hayes's 1957 national championship team. He was also just a little different from the average professional football player, as Plimpton observed in
LeBeau was different on the field too. He played at the opposite corner from Lane, one of the greatest and most instinctive defensive backs in the history of the game, whose 14 interceptions in his rookie year of 1952 as a member of the Los Angeles Rams still stands as an NFL single-season record (what is more remarkable is that Lane did it in 12 games). LeBeau, meanwhile, was more of a thinker, analyzing offenses and offensive players long before he began coaching against them. Plimpton described interviewing Lane about LeBeau's propensity for reading the strides of long-legged receivers and quoted Lane's response: "Well, that's Dickie-Bird for you. He's complex. He confirms and thinks on it about reading the receivers."
That reputation for cerebral play was validated in LeBeau's first year of retirement, when Mike McCormack, head coach of the Eagles, hired LeBeau, 36, to coach special teams. He spent three years in that role before moving to Green Bay in 1976 under Bart Starr to coach defensive backs and then to Cincinnati under Forrest Gregg in '80 in the same capacity. The Bengals of the early '80s were a premier franchise, losing in the Super Bowl at the end of the '81 season to the 49ers 26-21 and then winning seven more games in the strike-abbreviated '82 season.
But LeBeau saw change coming. Here, a brief bit of history is in order. Throughout most of the 20th century, pass defense was man-to-man, with occasional double coverage. Zone defenses became prominent in the 1950s; Bill Walsh's short-passing, possession-based West Coast offense, born in '70 and cultivated through the ensuing decade, was the first air attack to exploit the moving voids and seams in the zone defense.
It was also one of the first offenses to use "hot reads," in which quarterbacks -- like Kurt Warner a quarter-century later -- were conditioned to throw quickly to preassigned receivers when the defense blitzed or to exploit man-to-man single coverage. "The one thing you knew," says Steve Spurrier, who played quarterback in the NFL from 1967 through '76, "was that if you saw a blitz, you were getting man-to-man defense behind it. That didn't mean it was easy to deal with the blitz, but at least you knew what coverage you were going to get."
By the time Walsh's 49ers beat the Bengals in that Super Bowl at the end of the '81 season, it was obvious to football insiders that defenses would have to somehow adapt to match the Walsh offense -- and quickly, or the blitz would be neutered.
LeBeau believed in pressure. It was in his DNA. (One of LeBeau's good friends, basketball coach Bob Knight, was a pal from their days at Ohio State. They often talked about ball pressure in their respective sports.) Says LeBeau, "When I was with the Lions, we ran an 11-up blitz, all 11 guys on the line of scrimmage. Wayne Walker was one of the best blitzers I've ever seen." But by the time he reached Cincinnati, LeBeau could see the new challenge. "At that point, around 1982 or '83, we were really looking for a way to get to the quarterback," he recalls. "But with some of the offenses that were being developed at that time, the quarterbacks were getting pretty good at throwing quickly when you blitzed."
LeBeau had already begun tinkering with new ways to attack the quarterback. He had all the support he needed from defensive coordinator Hank Bullough, a 3-4 defense pioneer who had fiddled around with elements of the zone blitz when he was with the Patriots from 1973 through '79. In '78 Bullough had used Mike Hawkins, a versatile 6-foot-2, 232-pound rookie linebacker, as the focal point of several zone blitz-type schemes. He was more than happy to let LeBeau try to work up some new schemes.
Before the 1983 season, LeBeau put in a coverage package in which the Bengals would show blitz, encouraging the quarterback to read man-to-man in the secondary. But instead of manning up his corners on the outside in straight one-on-one coverage, LeBeau had 14-year veteran corner Ken Riley "sit down" (hold his ground) and rotated a safety into zone coverage behind him. Before long, this would become a standard coverage, but at the time it was highly unusual. As soon as a quarterback read blitz, his assumption would be that Riley would be backpedaling to avoid getting beat deep, prompting the QB to throw quick and short, into Riley's short zone.
LeBeau happily recalls that first experimental zone blitz. "So there was this exhibition game and we just decided to try it. We ran the zone blitz and the quarterback just threw the ball straight to Ken Riley," he says at a Steelers training camp practice in the summer of 2009. "And I thought, hey, we might have something here." He smiles broadly. "Turns out we did."
LeBeau continued to play with the scheme throughout the Bengals' 7-9 season in '83. In the offseason, Forrest Gregg left the Bengals to become head coach at Green Bay and took Bullough with him. New Bengals head coach Sam Wyche gave LeBeau his first shot as defensive coordinator, and LeBeau made the zone blitz his top priority. First stop: Baton Rouge, where longtime NFL defensive guru Bill Arnsparger, 57, had taken the head coaching job at LSU.
LeBeau picks up the story. "I got off the airplane, drove straight over to Bill's office, walked in and started asking questions. I knew he had done some stuff in the past that was similar to what I thinking about."
And he was correct. Arnsparger, raised in Paris, Ky., had played his college football at Miami (Ohio), long known as a "coaching cradle" for the many coaches who were nurtured there; he took his first job at Ohio State, leaving two years before LeBeau arrived there in the fall of 1955. And now, almost 30 years later, LeBeau had come to LSU seeking Arnsparger's advice. "I remember the day Dick visited me like it was yesterday," says Arnsparger. "We were two guys talking football on a beautiful day in Baton Rouge. What could be better than that?"
Arnsparger's coaching history made him a perfect resource for LeBeau. While working at Kentucky from 1954 through '61, one of Arnsparger's colleagues had been Don Shula, who would become coach of the Baltimore Colts in '63. A year later, Shula hired Arnsparger as his defensive-line coach, and in '70, when Shula took over the Miami Dolphins, he took Arnsparger with him.
In '71, Arnsparger began using Dolphins linebacker Bob Matheson, a 6-4, 238-pounder, as a defensive end who would sometimes drop off into pass coverage. The scheme left the Dolphins in a de facto 3-4 defense and also enabled them to zone-blitz by rushing the likes of Nick Buoniconti and Doug Swift from one side, along with three down linemen, while dropping Matheson into coverage.
"With Bob there, with linebacking skills," says Arnsparger, "we were able to rush five guys and cover with six. That's what you need to run a zone blitz. We could usually drop a linebacker into that slot zone, and that gave people a lot of problems." Arnsparger became progressively more creative, at times running double blitzes from the outside and dropping tackle Manny Fernandez, a brilliant athlete, into coverage. A year later the Dolphins went 17-0, winning the Super Bowl, and the following season won another.
Arnsparger wasn't finished. After spending three years as coach of the New York Giants from 1974 to '76, he went back to Miami for another eight years and built another solid Dolphins defense, known as the Killer B's for employing as many as seven starters whose last name began with B. Those Dolphins played in two more Super Bowls, though they lost both.
What had drawn LeBeau to Louisiana was the chance to tap Arnsparger's thinking behind the zone blitz. Two words stayed in his head. "Bill's catchphrase was that he wanted to get 'safe pressure,' on the quarterback," says LeBeau. "And that expression stuck with me because that was a very succinct way to summarize exactly what I was looking for. Safe pressure. I walked out the door saying those words to myself."
When he got back to Cincinnati, LeBeau made the zone blitz central to the Bengals' defensive philosophy. But it wasn't until 1986 that it truly took off, and it happened when the Bengals drafted 6-foot-3, 228-pound safety David Fulcher out of Arizona State.
"David Fulcher was a unique athlete," says LeBeau. "Very big for his position, but also very talented. Blitzing with him was one of the ways we expanded the possibilities of the fire zone, and it was very effective." In a play that LeBeau called Fulcher Two Stay, he had Fulcher, at strong safety, jump into the scrimmage box and blitz while the free safety slid into a two deep zone with a cornerback, and at least two other linebackers dropped off in coverage. In effect, Fulcher was a fifth linebacker in the Bengals' 3-4 scheme.
In 1988, Fulcher's third season and LeBeau's fifth as coordinator, the Bengals went back to the Super Bowl and again battled Walsh's 49ers to the final possession before losing 20-16.
By then, in the course of eight seasons, the offense-defense paradigm had been reversed; now it was offenses that needed to adapt, to counter the effectiveness of LeBeau's zone. "I always felt that we contributed greatly to the development of the run-and-shoot offense," says LeBeau. "Teams were just looking for quicker and quicker ways to attack, to the point where it might not even matter where the pressure was coming from. We showed teams the holes in their protection with what we were doing."
In the decade following the success of that Bengals' defense, other teams around the NFL, of course, began to install pieces of the zone blitz, including the New Orleans Saints of the late '80s. One of the Saints' defensive assistants in 1986 was 36-year-old Dom Capers. Like LeBeau, Capers was an Ohioan to his marrow: born in Cambridge, Ohio, grew up in Buffalo, Ohio, and played safety and linebacker at Mount Union in the state. (His roommate there was Larry Kehres, who would later become the coach at their alma mater and lead it to 10 national championships through 2008.)
Capers had coached 12 years at seven colleges before he joined head coach Jim Mora in 1984 as a defensive assistant with the Philadelphia Stars (who the next season became the Baltimore Stars) of the soon-to-be-defunct United States Football League. Mora left after two seasons and in '86 took Capers with him to New Orleans. Capers had experimented with elements of zone blitz schemes in the USFL, but in New Orleans, he discovered, the schemes themselves were often less critical -- because the talent itself was so outstanding.
"During the time we were there," says Capers, "we had some of the best front-seven players in the NFL. Look at our linebackers: Pat Swilling and Rickey Jackson on the outside, Sam Mills and Vaughan Johnson inside. Two of our up-front pass rushers were Frank Warren and Jumpy Geathers. With those guys we could beat people one-on-one, and we did. We didn't have to get real creative."
Those Saints went to the playoffs after the '87, '90 and '91 seasons and averaged just under 10 wins a year from '86 to '91. In '92, Kansas City Chiefs defensive coordinator Bill Cowher was brought to Pittsburgh as head coach, and Cowher hired Capers as his defensive coordinator and then brought in none other than Dick LeBeau to coach his secondary, after LeBeau had been ousted in Cincinnati with head coach Wyche.
The two Buckeyes, Capers and LeBeau, put their heads and their experience together. "Dick had done more zone blitzing than I had," recalls Capers. "But I had done some too. We started talking, and it was really pretty exciting."
Less exciting was the Steelers' personnel. Pittsburgh had gone 7-9 the previous year. "Our pass rushers were not nearly as good as what we had in New Orleans," says Capers. "Three quarters of the way through that first season, we only had 19 sacks. We just weren't getting to the quarterback enough. It reached the point, late in that season, where Dick and I just said to each other, 'We've got to do something X's and O's-wise because our front seven guys are just not beating people one-on-one.'
"If you looked at our secondary," Capers continues, "we had some pretty good guys back there -- Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake. So in the latter part of the season we started mixing in some zone pressures and getting more pressure on the quarterback. The secondary responded well, and the guys up front loved it because it was aggressive." The Steelers improved so significantly down the stretch that year, en route to an 11--5 record, that they finished No. 2 in the league in scoring defense.
In the offseason Capers and LeBeau committed totally to the zone blitz, hence giving birth to the nickname Blitz-burgh Steelers. The Steelers also added outside linebacker Kevin Greene and inside linebacker Chad Brown, upgrading their front seven.
Says Capers, "That second year we ended up doing a lot of zone pressuring. We started doing things like having a lineman step forward to occupy a blocker and then dropping back into coverage. And we found that offenses started to play us differently. Their linemen couldn't be as aggressive because they just didn't know if our guys were coming. So much of football is mental, and if you can make an offensive line passive, that's half the battle. Then if you can confuse them by dropping guys out into pass coverage when they think they're going to pass-rush, that's another big part of it."
Those seasons in the early '90s established the Steelers' defensive reputation that has lived on for nearly two decades. As a team the Steelers ascended through the postseason, from a playoff loss in the '93 season to a conference championship loss to the Chargers in '94 to a Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys ending the '95 season. "We jumped off the diving board with the zone blitz in Pittsburgh," says LeBeau. "And it turns out we could swim pretty well."
Capers moved on in 1995 when he was named head coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers. There he built his defense around veterans with experience in the zone blitz package. He brought in 36-year-old linebacker Sam Mills from New Orleans and, in his second season, Kevin Greene, then 34, from Pittsburgh.
Success came quickly. The Panthers went 12-4 in '96, finishing second in the NFL in scoring defense and reaching the NFC Championship Game, where they ran into Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers and lost 30-13. The zone blitz had propelled them deeper into the postseason than any previous expansion team in the league's history.
"The newness of the scheme was what really made it fun in those years, with Pittsburgh and Carolina," says Capers. "Teams weren't ready for it. There were very good teams that had a lot of trouble with it. Miami had real problems, because Dan Marino had become so accustomed to making man-to-man reads that the fire zones really seemed to confuse him." LeBeau recalls talking to Marino after a game and asking him what reads he was making: "He said, 'I had no idea what I was reading.'"
Capers is a coach's coach, with 15 stops in his 38-year career -- so far. His latest stop is Green Bay, where he became defensive coordinator in 2009. The zone blitz also rewarded LeBeau with a head coaching job, back with the Bengals in 2000. It didn't go well. Under LeBeau, the Bengals went 12-33 in three seasons. He was fired and spent a year in Buffalo before returning to Pittsburgh in 2004 as defensive coordinator, and there he has remained.
The Steelers have since won two Super Bowls and only once finished out of the NFL's top five teams in total defense. Eighteen years after first arriving in Pittsburgh, LeBeau is considered something of an icon as a defensive strategist. (He's also much loved by his players, to whom he recites The Night Before Christmas, from memory, every year in the locker room.)
Yet he remains too humble to talk freely about himself, and is fully humbled by success. "Everybody does it now," he says of his zone blitz. "And really, it's a joy to see how popular it is. Anybody who was around those teams in Cincinnati would feel the same way. And you'll never hear me say I was the first guy to do it. All I can say is that at the time, it was a pretty good idea."
It remains a pretty good idea, a staple of the game, undiminished by time or opposition.