ARLINGTON, Texas — Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers didn’t invent the concept of zone blitzing, but beginning late in the 1992 season, they did begin devising the 3-4 zone-blitz scheme that is getting the ultimate endorsement this week as the defenses for both Super Bowl teams.
The longtime friends and distinguished defensive coordinators, both natives of Ohio, will be running essentially the same defense Sunday in Super Bowl XLV. Their personnel is different, so they’ve tweaked their schemes to match their players’ strengths and weaknesses. But make no mistake, the roots of both men’s schemes date to 1992, when they roomed together for six months in the offseason as new hires to Bill Cowher’s coaching staff with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In three years together, they developed the defense that now has them at the pinnacle of their profession.
“This is probably the only Super Bowl ever that players from either team could jump in the defensive huddle and understand the terminology and probably run the defense,” LeBeau said Tuesday at Super Bowl Media Day at Cowboys Stadium.
The two highly respected and longtime coaches — Capers is 60 and in his 25th season as an NFL coach, LeBeau is 73 and in his 52nd season as either a player or coach in the league — enter the Super Bowl seemingly at the height of their powers. LeBeau’s defense with the Pittsburgh Steelers finished the regular season ranked first in scoring and second in yards allowed. Capers’ Packers were second and fifth, respectively.
“These two guys stick to their guns,” said Mike Trgovac, the Packers’ defensive line coach. “They do what they do, and they do it well.”
The beginnings of the zone-blitz scheme came in the early 1980s, when LeBeau began dabbling in the concepts as defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals from 1984 to 1991. It was a counter for the quick-passing offenses that were dominating the game at that time, mostly Bill Walsh’s West Coast passing game but also the run and shoot.
But it didn’t become the full-fledged philosophy and scheme that we’ll see from both teams Sunday until ’92, when former Steelers coach Bill Cowher hired Capers off the New Orleans Saints coaching staff to be his defensive coordinator, and LeBeau, who’d lost his job in Cincinnati when the Bengals fired coach Sam Wyche.
The two had known each other through coaching circles, mostly as NFL defensive backs coaches scouting college players in the campus-workout circuit in the two months before the NFL draft. In their first six months with the Steelers, they were roommates and built the Steelers’ defensive playbook from scratch. And there was double the work, because at the time, Cowher wanted to play a 4-3 scheme and Capers a 3-4. So they had to put in all the plays for both. Capers still has that playbook, which is handwritten and 900 pages thick.
“It was about three months there where we were in the office until 10 o’clock at night every night,” Capers said.
LeBeau said: “I was never so glad to go to camp in my life. We literally had two things on defense and could have gone either way, but the 3-4 did pretty good so we stayed with that.”
Though they were using the 3-4 in ’92, it wasn’t the zone-blitz scheme but more of the defense that Capers had worked in while with the Saints. But the Steelers didn’t have any individual pass-rushing talent of note, and as the year went on, they became desperate to get more pressure on the quarterback without blitzing recklessly. So they began putting in some of LeBeau’s zone blitzes, where a linebacker or two might rush while a defensive lineman unexpectedly dropped into zone coverage in the area vacated.
LeBeau and Capers kept adding new blitz and drop combinations over the next two years, and by 1994, it had grown into the zone-blitz scheme that earned the Steelers the nickname “Blitzburgh.”
“The concept was to have a safer way of pressuring people but not totally expose your defense,” said Darren Perry, the current Packers’ safeties coach who was a rookie starter on the ’92 Steelers, played in the system from 1992 to 1998 and then coached it under LeBeau and now Capers.
The scheme has evolved over the years, after Capers and LeBeau went separate ways. The success at Pittsburgh landed Capers the job of head coach for expansion Carolina in 1995 and later with expansion Houston, followed by stops as a defensive coordinator with Jacksonville and Miami before joining the Packers last year. LeBeau replaced Capers as the Steelers’ coordinator in 1995, moved on to Cincinnati as an assistant head coach and later three seasons as head coach before returning to the Steelers in 2004.
Every team in the NFL now uses zone-blitz concepts whether playing a 4-3 or a 3-4, and the blitzes that were new and exotic in the early and mid-1990s now are mundane. The combinations of blitzes, drops and coverages get more complex each year as Capers and LeBeau separately adapt to offenses’ adaptations.
“It’s pretty neat the way it has evolved,” LeBeau said. “At one time there wasn’t very many people doing it, and now you can’t look at any team in the league — (everybody) is going to run some zone blitz.”
Among the evolutions, or at least efforts to adapt the scheme to specific personnel, is that the Packers actually have played far less 3-4 this season than the Steelers.
The Packers have played nickel far more than any other personnel group, somewhere between 70 and 75 percent of their defensive snaps. They’ve done it in part to match up with offensive personnel — three- and four-receiver sets, and two tight ends and two receivers. But Capers also likes the nickel because it moves cornerback Charles Woodson to play the slot, where he’s a bigger threat to blitz or at least fake blitz and generally cause havoc for quarterbacks.
On the surface, there’s not much difference between Capers’ nickel and a 4-3 nickel, because Capers’ nickel often puts four men on the line. But because the Packers’ roster is built for the 3-4, their outside rushers, who are outside linebackers when the team goes 3-4, are different than a 4-3’s outside rusher. Players such as the Packers’ Clay Matthews and Erik Walden have to be able to drop in coverage as well as rush the passer, and they practice both extensively. Capers thus has great faith to use odd blitz combinations regularly because of their abilities to drop into coverage effectively when needed.
“You’re not afraid to rush these other guys and drop Clay,” said Trgovac, who ran a 4-3 as defensive coordinator in Carolina but says he’d run the 3-4 scheme if he’s a defensive coordinator again. “Whereas a (4-3) defensive end, you limit what they do in your fire zones because they have very limited concepts of routes. You have to teach our outside linebackers all the routes because in base they’re going to get all those routes. That’s where the difference and flexibility comes from.”
Now, Capers and LeBeau will face off with the NFL’s ultimate prize on the line. They might be the two most respected defensive coordinators in the game today, and the system they built beginning in the spring of 1992 not only has survived the test of time, it’s the toast of the NFL.
“Both of these guys to be here, have these systems on display, I think it’s great for football,” Perry said. “I believe in it, and a lot of credit goes to those guys, they make it work. You have to put the pieces in place to make it succeed, and those guys have done that.”