The Wizard of Blitzburgh

Many fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers harbor renewed hope for the coming season. Such optimism is not the result of signing a key free agent or the buzz surrounding a prized rookie. Instead, fans are celebrating the return of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, one of the architects of the often-effective zone blitz defense.

The pick of QB Ben Roethlisberger in the first round of this year's draft made many fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers happy. But a great quarterback will only go so far in this town. Everyone is crazy about defense and the return of Dick LeBeau to the Steel City is the biggest move of the off-season.

Bill Cowher hired LeBeau to coach the defensive backs in 1992. Dom Capers was the defensive coordinator and the two developed the zone blitz that became so successful for Cowher and the Steelers.

Capers recreated the scheme for the Carolina Panthers as the head coach, that team leading the NFL in sacks for the 1996 season. LeBeau took over for Capers in Pittsburgh and the Steelers enjoyed some of their best defensive games since the era of the Steel Curtain and a return to the Super Bowl after an absence of over 15 years.

But was it the scheme or the players?

LeBeau had this to say when recalling his first stint with the Steelers, "Greg Lloyd may be the best football player I have ever seen. Kevin Greene was almost unblockable. Then, we had Chad Brown and Levon Kirkland inside [ILB]. We had two guys in the secondary in Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson. I've been coaching around this league a long time and I have not seen very many players better than those two, and they were in the same backfield. You could go on and on."

When LeBeau landed the head coaching job in Cincinnati, his success did not follow him. One of the biggest problems for the lowly Bengals was defense, the reason the organization chased Marvin Lewis after canning LeBeau.

Before Cowher hired LeBeau for the job of defensive backs coach in Pittsburgh, LeBeau was the defensive coordinator for Sam Wyche in Cincinnati. LeBeau was already using the zone blitz even back then and the Bengals were 17th for sacks in the NFL during his eight seasons at DC.

Add to that Capers landing in Houston, a team next to last in sacks for the 2003 season.

Begrudgingly, a few fans may have to recognize the common denominator for success in Pittsburgh, talented players.

What makes the zone blitz go round are "unblockable" linebackers. Concern, perhaps obsession, with these LBs opens up opportunities for the safeties and even the defensive ends, as Ray Seals demonstrated in 1995 with 8.5 sacks.

In the zone blitz, defensive linemen will often drop, taking away the short pass while the linebackers and defensive backs fill the rush lanes. If your rushing LB or DB cannot beat the running back picking up the blitz, the defense is caught in a mismatch on coverage.

If you cannot create a mismatch for your blitzing players, the scheme collapses. However, if you can, you'll get a reaction such as this one from QB Vinny Testaverde, "When you face the zone blitz - against a team that plays it well - sometimes it looks like nobody's open and everybody's rushing. You'd think with everybody on defense moving around so much it wouldn't be sound, but on paper it's as sound a defense as you'll see."

Part of the problem with getting a unit to play well in the scheme is getting everyone on the same page. But even if you can do that, you still have to have a few pass rushers that the offense MUST respect.

Playmakers in the secondary, such as Lake and Woodson, don't hurt, but CB Willie Williams did not grab a career high 7 interceptions during the 1995 season because he is in the class of the top cornerbacks in the league. The linebackers were busy creating havoc that benefited the defensive backs.

Where art thou Kevin Greene, Levon Kirkland, Chad Brown, and Greg Lloyd? LeBeau's defense starts and stops with the talent at linebacker and I doubt anyone is ready to place Clark Haggans' name among this short list of defensive greats.

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