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Dick Lebeau

Dick Lebeau

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Published by orli779
Dick Lebeau Zone blitz
Dick Lebeau Zone blitz

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Published by: orli779 on Aug 03, 2013
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08/03/2013

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March 2008
 A phone rings, and the writer answers. A voice on the other end says, "This is Coach LeBeau. You wantto 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 zoneblitz. 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 aletter -- 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 booksomeday, 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
Paper Lion
,published in 1965. It was a brilliant, funny, self-deprecating account of Plimpton's experience as a"quarterback" at the Detroit Lions' '63 training camp. More than the personal recollection of an erudite,Harvard-educated writer,
Paper Lion
drew back the curtain on the world of the professional footballplayer. While far less scandalous than Jim Bouton's
Ball Four 
, the bawdy baseball memoir published in'70, it was every bit as insightful.When Plimpton arrived at the Lions' camp in 1963, LeBeau was already established as one of the bestdefensive backs in the NFL, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound starting right cornerback (a position he would hold for171 consecutive games, from '59 to '71). He was a part of a Lions team that had gone 11-3 the previousyear 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 JoeSchmidt 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 onWoody Hayes's 1957 national championship team. He was also just a little different from the averageprofessional football player, as Plimpton observed in
Paper Lion
:
LeBeau was from Ohio, with a pronounced midwestern twang, nasal and slow, which made the songs he put to his guitar quite incomprehensible, though fetching: gentle songs full of melancholy and poverty,one supposed, and love unrequited. He himself had a lady-killer reputation. Thin-hipped, built like a highschool basketball player, his hair worn longer than most of the others', he was called Ricky, less adiminutive of Richard than derived from a crop of teenage movie stars and singers of the time, all of that name, whose manner and attitude he seemed to cultivate.
 LeBeau was different on the field too. He played at the opposite corner from Lane, one of the greatestand most instinctive defensive backs in the history of the game, whose 14 interceptions in his rookieyear of 1952 as a member of the Los Angeles Rams still stands as an NFL single-season record (what ismore remarkable is that Lane did it in 12 games). LeBeau, meanwhile, was more of a thinker, analyzingoffenses and offensive players long before he began coaching against them. Plimpton describedinterviewing Lane about LeBeau's propensity for reading the strides of long-legged receivers and quotedLane's response: "Well, that's Dickie-Bird for you. He's complex. He confirms and thinks on it aboutreading the receivers."That reputation for cerebral play was validated in LeBeau's first year of retirement, when MikeMcCormack, head coach of the Eagles, hired LeBeau, 36, to coach special teams. He spent three years inthat role before moving to Green Bay in 1976 under Bart Starr to coach defensive backs and then toCincinnati under Forrest Gregg in '80 in the same capacity. The Bengals of the early '80s were a premierfranchise, losing in the Super Bowl at the end of the '81 season to the 49ers 26-21 and then winningseven more games in the strike-abbreviated '82 season.
 
 Dick LeBeau has served as the Steelers defensive coordinator since the 2004 season.Getty ImagesBut LeBeau saw change coming. Here, a brief bit of history is in order. Throughout most of the 20thcentury, pass defense was man-to-man, with occasional double coverage. Zone defenses becameprominent in the 1950s; Bill Walsh's short-passing, possession-based West Coast offense, born in '70and cultivated through the ensuing decade, was the first air attack to exploit the moving voids andseams in the zone defense.It was also one of the first offenses to use "hot reads," in which quarterbacks -- like Kurt Warner aquarter-century later -- were conditioned to throw quickly to preassigned receivers when the defenseblitzed or to exploit man-to-man single coverage. "The one thing you knew," says Steve Spurrier, whoplayed quarterback in the NFL from 1967 through '76, "was that if you saw a blitz, you were gettingman-to-man defense behind it. That didn't mean it was easy to deal with the blitz, but at least you knewwhat 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 wasobvious 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 BobKnight, was a pal from their days at Ohio State. They often talked about ball pressure in their respectivesports.) 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 reachedCincinnati, LeBeau could see the new challenge. "At that point, around 1982 or '83, we were reallylooking for a way to get to the quarterback," he recalls. "But with some of the offenses that were beingdeveloped 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 heneeded from defensive coordinator Hank Bullough, a 3-4 defense pioneer who had fiddled around withelements of the zone blitz when he was with the Patriots from 1973 through '79. In '78 Bullough hadused Mike Hawkins, a versatile 6-foot-2, 232-pound rookie linebacker, as the focal point of several zoneblitz-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 hiscorners 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 wouldbecome 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 QBto 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 justdecided to try it. We ran the zone blitz and the quarterback just threw the ball straight to Ken Riley," hesays at a Steelers training camp practice in the summer of 2009. "And I thought, hey, we might havesomething 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. NewBengals 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 BillArnsparger, 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 andstarted asking questions. I knew he had done some stuff in the past that was similar to what I thinkingabout."And he was correct. Arnsparger, raised in Paris, Ky., had played his college football at Miami (Ohio), longknown as a "coaching cradle" for the many coaches who were nurtured there; he took his first job atOhio State, leaving two years before LeBeau arrived there in the fall of 1955. And now, almost 30 yearslater, LeBeau had come to LSU seeking Arnsparger's advice. "I remember the day Dick visited me like itwas 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 from1954 through '61, one of Arnsparger's colleagues had been Don Shula, who would become coach of theBaltimore Colts in '63. A year later, Shula hired Arnsparger as his defensive-line coach, and in '70, whenShula 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 defensiveend who would sometimes drop off into pass coverage. The scheme left the Dolphins in a de facto 3-4defense and also enabled them to zone-blitz by rushing the likes of Nick Buoniconti and Doug Swift fromone 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 coverwith 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 timesrunning double blitzes from the outside and dropping tackle Manny Fernandez, a brilliant athlete, intocoverage. A year later the Dolphins went 17-0, winning the Super Bowl, and the following season wonanother.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 asthe Killer B's for employing as many as seven starters whose last name began with B. Those Dolphinsplayed 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 thequarterback," says LeBeau. "And that expression stuck with me because that was a very succinct way tosummarize exactly what I was looking for. Safe pressure. I walked out the door saying those words tomyself."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 veryeffective." In a play that LeBeau called Fulcher Two Stay, he had Fulcher, at strong safety, jump into thescrimmage box and blitz while the free safety slid into a two deep zone with a cornerback, and at leasttwo 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 SuperBowl 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 wasoffenses that needed to adapt, to counter the effectiveness of LeBeau's zone. "I always felt that wecontributed greatly to the development of the run-and-shoot offense," says LeBeau. "Teams were justlooking for quicker and quicker ways to attack, to the point where it might not even matter where thepressure 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 theSaints' defensive assistants in 1986 was 36-year-old Dom Capers. Like LeBeau, Capers was an Ohioan tohis marrow: born in Cambridge, Ohio, grew up in Buffalo, Ohio, and played safety and linebacker atMount Union in the state. (His roommate there was Larry Kehres, who would later become the coach attheir 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 adefensive assistant with the Philadelphia Stars (who the next season became the Baltimore Stars) of thesoon-to-be-defunct United States Football League. Mora left after two seasons and in '86 took Caperswith him to New Orleans. Capers had experimented with elements of zone blitz schemes in the USFL, butin New Orleans, he discovered, the schemes themselves were often less critical -- because the talentitself 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 Johnsoninside. Two of our up-front pass rushers were Frank Warren and Jumpy Geathers. With those guys wecould beat people one-on-one, and we did. We didn't have to get real creative."

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