THE ZONE BLITZturns 25 next year. It has become a staple of pro football, but why does itremain suffocating after all these years, and how did its inventor devise thescheme in the first place? "Necessity was the mother of invention,"Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said last week. "When I played,offenses ran [the ball] probably 65 percent of the plays. As time went on, itwas just about reversed. We needed to be more imaginative to stop these passinggames."
This is an article from the Dec. 22, 2008 issue
LeBeau, theyoungest-looking 71-year-old coach in NFL history, is celebrating his 50thseason in the NFL this year—14 as a fine cornerback for the Detroit Lions, 36as a well-traveled coach—and he has never been better: Through 15 weeks hisSteelers lead the league in points allowed, total yards and passing D, and aresecond in rushing. No NFL team since the 1959 Giants has finished a season No.1 in all four categories.
LeBeau was a goodpal of Bob Knight's when both attended Ohio State in the late '50s, and they'vekept in touch to this day. Their conversations inevitably turn to defensivepressure on the ball. It worked for Knight on the basketball court, and it hasworked for LeBeau, especially since the idea of safe pressure came to him whilepreparing for his first coordinator job, in Cincinnati in 1984. While scoutingfor the '84 draft, LeBeau talked to LSU coach Bill Arnsparger about pressuringthe passer while still being able to cover receivers. That got LeBeau tothinking: On obvious passing downs, what if he dropped a defensive lineman ortwo or a linebacker into a shallow zone and blitzed a defensive back orlinebacker? Zones wouldn't be left unmanned, and by the time the quarterbacksaw an open receiver, the confusing blitz package would have—hopefully—done itsjob. The zone blitz was born.
LeBeau's schemebegan to flourish when he joined Bill Cowher's Steelers staff as secondarycoach in 1992, and it has really taken off for him since '03, LeBeau's singleseason as a Bills assistant. That year Buffalo improved from 15th in totaldefense to second, and the players bought into the scheme on opening day when335-pound defensive tackle Sam Adams dropped into the middle linebacker's zone,picked off Tom Brady and returned the interception 37 yards for a touchdown. InPittsburgh since 2004, LeBeau's units have ranked first, fourth, ninth andfirst overall, with this year's team playing better than any unit LeBeau hascoached.
The Steelers mayhave the two perfect outside linebackers for the zone blitz: five-year veteranJames Harrison and second-year man LaMarr Woodley. They're equally adept atcoverage and rushing the passer, and the 265-pound Woodley is a good runstuffer. "I was a 4--3 end at Michigan, and I think I dropped into coveragesix plays there," Woodley says. "When I got here, I knew they weredrafting me to pressure the quarterback, and I didn't know why they'd want meto drop back. But I drop maybe 40, 50 percent of the time now, and I see why.The tackle doesn't know what I'm doing, and it keeps me fresh. If you're notrushing, not fighting with someone, you're running with a receiver." OnNov. 30 that meant covering Patriots wideout Randy Moss. "They've pickedthe perfect players for that system—athletic guys who can drop intocoverage," says Titans coordinator Jim Schwartz. That's the key, LeBeausays. Linemen have to be nimble, corners physical and linebackers versatile.And it helps to have a leader like strong safety Troy Polamalu, equally goodstuffing the run and staying with wideouts. "I've stolen from DickLeBeau," says Ravens coordinator Rex Ryan. "If I'm going to watch oneteam now, it's Pittsburgh."
The defense, andthe man, show few signs of aging. "It's a young man's job," LeBeau saidlast Thursday, still at the office at 7:30 p.m. "I don't know how you'resupposed to feel at 71, but I very seldom need the alarm clock to get up. Iguess that's a good sign."