Steelers, Packers will match wits with zone blitz
ARLINGTON, Texas — At the genesis of "Blitzburgh," the advent of the 3-4 zone blitz, the Steelers did not know what to expect from the diabolical diagramming of defensive masterminds Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau.
Neither did the rest of the NFL.
"The goal was to try to get pressure but to find a safer way to do it," said Darren Perry, a Steelers safety from 1992-98. "We were excited each Wednesday when we got our game plan as it kept building and building and building. The next thing you know, we were the zone-blitz team."
It wasn't so simple.
The transition was filled with trial and error, but soon the Steelers evolved from a team that struggled to get sacks in 1992 to one that led the league in them. They reached the AFC Championship in 1994, the Super Bowl the next year and have won the Lombardi Trophy twice since 2005.
"I'd like to say it worked immediately," LeBeau said, "but we went through a lot of blind alleys."
Capers and LeBeau, self-described "small-town Ohio guys," were at the forefront of a movement now employed by 14 NFL teams — the switch to a 3-4 defense filled with endless pass-rush possibilities. They share a mutual respect and enduring friendship, although LeBeau quickly clarified that Capers is "not particularly a strong friend of mine this week."
The now-legendary defensive coordinators will match wits with their zone-blitz schemes tonight when they meet in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, with LeBeau guiding the Steelers' defense and Capers the Green Bay Packers'.
It's a colossal clash pitting two of the NFL's top defenses against each other, defenses that run a scheme LeBeau is credited with creating with the Cincinnati Bengals in the mid-1980s, one Capers and LeBeau implemented together with the Steelers during the 1990s and that Capers installed in Green Bay in 2009 after becoming defensive coordinator.
"I think our philosophy is based in trying to stop the run and trying to make the game a one-dimensional game," Capers said. "We feel we have many different things that can attack and pressure the quarterback, and we know this is a quarterback-driven league. If you let the quarterback sit there and he can do everything on time, then it's normally going to be a long game in this league. You have to be able to do something that disrupts the quarterback's rhythm and, if you can do that, it leads to being able to take the ball away."
Perry, a former Steelers secondary coach now with the Packers, has played and coached under both Capers and LeBeau and says the difference in their styles is primarily in how they go about communicating.
"Both of them are highly intelligent, very passionate about what they do, very detailed," Perry said. "Dick's a little more laid back. Dom's probably a little bit more meticulous. If Dom has a highlighter that's out of place, he's probably not going to feel too comfortable. Dick may be a little more flexible. But great teachers, very intense on game day, and they want to win."
Capers' attention to detail — and, later, the frequency with which he uses highlighters — caught Packers coach Mike McCarthy's eye when he picked up Capers at the airport to interview for the coordinator job in 2009, after his stints as head coach in Carolina and Houston.
"We were coming out of baggage claim, and he had a suitcase like all of the other candidates, but he also had a humongous bag of books," McCarthy said, noting that Capers brought his original, handwritten notes from the installation of the zone-blitz defense in Pittsburgh. "He's old-school in that way where he still likes to write everything out."
It didn't take long for Capers' creative writing to capture the Packers' respect or for Capers to demonstrate the traits he shares with LeBeau: consistency, knowledge, listening skills, and an ability to identify strengths and put defenders in position to make plays.
"Dom, in my opinion, is one of the best of all time," Packers inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. "I have not seen anyone do it any better."
The Steelers might take exception to that. Nose tackle Casey Hampton described LeBeau as a "genius." Outside linebacker James Harrison called LeBeau "the wizard of everything that we do."
"Without him," Harrison said, "we aren't the defense that you've come to see out there on the field."
That's another thing Capers and LeBeau share: They deflect credit for their success to having the proper personnel, whether it be Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene (now the Packers linebackers coach) with the old "Blitzburgh" defense or their current charges.
The Packers and Steelers have produced the past three NFL Defensive Players of the Year in Harrison (2008), Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson ('09) and Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu, who finished two votes ahead of Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews this year. They give the defensive coordinators the luxury to design and disguise schemes that take advantage of their unique pass-rushing and coverage skills.
"What we had were great players," LeBeau said of his days with Capers in Pittsburgh. "I think we all were smart enough to realize that it wasn't the Xs and Os. It was just the way the players were executing them."
The meeting of Capers and LeBeau, and their zone-blitz defenses, in Super Bowl XLV shows we are all smart enough to know better.
q&A with troy polamalu
Is there a secret to the Steelers' success in the game?
"It's to carry out our game plan. It doesn't change from week to week. It hasn't changed for almost a decade since I've been here, and that's to always apply pressure to the quarterback. It's about holding up on the back and not trying to give up big plays, trying to tackle the catch, control the ball on offense. Our game plan never changes."
How do you define your playing style?
"I try to keep up with the other guys on our defense — guys like Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Ike Taylor. All these guys play with such a tremendous tenacity, with a great energy, a great motor. That's kind of been ingrained in us and instilled in the tradition of the defense that we have."
As a kid, did you ever dream about making a big play in the Super Bowl?
"I think we have a great saying as a secondary that when one guy makes a play, we all make a play. So when James Harrison ran the interception for the touchdown in the Super Bowl two years ago, we all did."Additional Information:
A look back
Key dates in the evolution of the 3-4 defense in the NFL:
• 1972: Miami Dolphins overcome injuries by occasionally disguising defense in a '53' formation • named for jersey number of fourth linebacker Bob Matheson • and go on to win Super Bowl VII and finish undefeated.
• 1975: Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips introduces the 3-4 base defense, using an aggressive one-gap scheme.
• 1981: When Oakland plays Philadelphia in Super Bowl XV, it marks first time two teams employing the 3-4 as base defense meet for NFL title.
• 1982: Steelers switch to a 3-4 base defense after the retirements of star defensive linemen Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood.
• 1984: Dick LeBeau becomes Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator, creates 'zone blitz' scheme.
• 1986: New York Giants, using two-gap 'double-bubble' 3-4 defense featuring Hall of Fame linebackers Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson, dominate Denver to win Super Bowl XXI.
? 1992: Steelers hire Dom Capers as defensive coordinator and Dick LeBeau as defensive backs coach. Within three years, their 'Blitzburgh' defense leads the NFL in sacks.Additional Information:
In the zone
A comparison of the Steelers and Packers, who ranked among the NFL's top defenses in almost every category (rank in parentheses):
Total defense: Steelers 276.8 yards per game (2nd); Packers 309.1 yards (5th)
Rush defense: Steelers 62.8 yards (1st); Packers 114.9 yards (18th)
Pass defense: Steelers 214.1 yards (12th); Packers 194.2 yards (5th)
Scoring defense: Steelers 14.5 points (1st); Packers 15.0 points (2nd)
Sacks: Steelers 48 (1st); Packers 47 (2nd)
INTs: Steelers 21 (5th); Packers 24 (2nd)
Total defense: Steelers 207.5 yards (1st); Packers 282.3 yards (3rd)
Rush defense: Steelers 52.5 yards (1st); Packers 69.7 yards (2nd)
Pass defense: Steelers 155.0 yards (2nd); Packers 212.7 yards (7th)
Points: Steelers 21.5 points (6th); Packers 17.0 points (T-1st)
Sacks: Steelers 7 (4th); Packers 10 (1st)
INTs: Steelers 1 (5th); Packers 6 (1st)