The Defense

Expect surprises, says Dr. Z, as two brilliant coordinators strut their stuff on the grandest stage
February 06, 2006

They are two ofthe true veterans of the NFL, the front-line commanders. It seems like they'vebeen around forever, coaching defenses, devising schemes and counter-schemes,working impossible hours, treating the media's questions with such blandanswers as, "Oh, we'll just work our regular defense, nothing special."In reality, their minds are on fire. What can we do that's unexpected, that'sbizarre?

Dick LeBeau andJohn Marshall, who'll be running the defenses of the Steelers and Seahawks,respectively, in Super Bowl XL, have been coaching in the NFL for a combined 48years. They are members of a special fraternity of defensive coordinators, all60 or over, who have at least 20 seasons of NFL service and whose excellence isunquestioned. Jim Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles and Monte Kiffin of theTampa Bay Buccaneers are two more. Their names aren't mentioned anymore whenhead coaching positions open up. They're past that. They're embedded in theirjobs.

"Guys likethat are coaches in the truest sense," says Mike Giddings Jr. of the NFLconsulting service Pro Scout Inc. "They really love what they're doing.They don't need the other stuff, the politics and having to answer toeverybody. And as long as owners are willing to pay coordinators a million ortwo these days, they're perfectly happy."

Like old-timepoker players who never crow about their skills, these coaches won't takecredit for any particular brilliance. "You gear your system to thepersonality of your players, what they like to do," is the most LeBeau willtell you about his hyperactive blitz package that confused the IndianapolisColts in the divisional round.

LeBeau inventedthe modern zone blitz, which switches linebackers to rushers and drops linemeninto pass coverage. But how about sending all those little guys--linebackers,safety Troy Polamalu--up the gut, and topping it off with James Farrior,normally an inside guy, crashing from the flank? "I've never seen so manyunblocked rushers get to a quarterback," said Houston Texans assistantcoach Greg Roman. "[Peyton] Manning couldn't even set his feet."

We'll never knowwhat LeBeau had devised for the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game, becausePittsburgh jumped to a 24-3 halftime lead and he played it close to the vest.He could come up with anything against Seattle. "The thing the Seahawkshave to worry about," says an NFL offensive assistant, "is the outsidelinebackers, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, rushing on early downs, with theirhands up instead of on the ground. In other words, not in normal, long-yardagesituations, when Seattle would be ready for them."

Marshall tookover the Seahawks' defense this fall after coordinator Ray Rhodes suffered amild stroke. The brilliance of Marshall's coaching can be seen in thedevelopment of his young players--defensive backs Michael Boulware and JordanBabineaux, and rookie linebackers Leroy Hill and, especially, Lofa Tatupu, asecond-round draft pick who has become one of the NFL's most exciting players.Tatupu has been a fine run-stopper all year, but in the postseason he beganappearing downfield. Against the Washington Redskins in the divisional playoffhe matched wideout Jimmy Farris stride for stride on a deep go-route and made aplay on the ball.

Before the NFCChampionship Game against the Carolina Panthers, Tatupu was leery of his basicassignment: Retreat to a spot 15 to 20 yards deep in the zone. "I don'twant to be back there all day," Tatupu said. "I want to be up near theline, where I belong."

Well, in thefirst quarter Tatupu swooped in front of wideout Steve Smith across the middle,picked off the pass and ran the ball back 21 yards. He was part of the zonecoverage that surrounded the game's most feared receiver all day andintercepted Jake Delhomme three times. The Seahawks played zone against thePanthers, seldom rushing more than four, but those rushers included linebackersand, one time, free safety Marquand Manuel.

Fewblitzes--heavy zone was Seattle's modus operandi against Carolina. AgainstPittsburgh the whole scheme might change. Creative is the word that describesthese veteran coordinators. "Ray sits behind me in the press box and makessuggestions," Marshall says of Rhodes. "All our coaches are part of thegame plan. It's very much a staff effort."

For both teams.Led by two of the true generals of the NFL.


Troy Polamalu


Shaun Alexander

The knock on the NFL rushing champ is that he's not abruising runner. If Alexander is to have a big game against Pittsburgh, he'sgoing to have to punish would-be tacklers. Polamalu delivers guided-missilehits on running backs; remember the screen pass the Broncos tried from theirend zone in the AFC Championship Game? Polamalu came from 15 yards out to dumpMike Anderson, nearly getting a safety. Add a rock-ribbed front three--endsAaron Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen and nosetackle Casey Hampton--and fourhard-hitting linebackers, and the Steelers have eight of the most physicaldefensive players in football. The Seattle coaches will tell their players,regarded around the league as a finesse unit, that they have to hit Pittsburghin the mouth from the first play. Alexander prides himself on eluding the bighit, but with Polamalu and the rest of the gap-storming Steelers defense cominghard, he'll have to take a few to make the Seahawks' rushing attackeffective.


Chidi Iwuoma


Peter Warrick

Because return man Jimmy Williams was so shaky in thedivisional playoff against the Redskins, Seattle switched to Warrick in the NFCChampionship Game. Assuming that Warrick keeps the job for the Super Bowl--hereturned two punts for seven yards, total, against Carolina but only eightpunts total over the last two seasons--Iwuoma's superb coverage and physicalplay gives Pittsburgh a decided edge in what could be a field-position battle.No NFL gunner is better than Iwuoma at saving a punt from reaching the endzone. And while both punters, Pittsburgh's Chris Gardocki and Seattle's TomRouen, are crafty veterans who excel at knocking the ball inside the 10,Gardocki might get more opportunities to do so. Steelers coach Bill Cowherlikes to play field position--with a fourth down on the Seahawks' 35-yard line,for instance, he'd rather have Gardocki try to pin Seattle down on the goalline than have placekicker Jeff Reed attempt a long field goal.

These coordinators' minds are on fire with thethought: What can we do that's unexpected, BIZARRE?