Game Day: Vinny vs. the Zone Blitz

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> The league's only starting rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, can move into a class with Mike Kruczek and Phil Simms if he wins the fourth consecutive start of his career when the Steelers (4-1) visit the Dallas Cowboys (2-2) at 4:15 this afternoon.

Opposite Roethlisberger will be the league's oldest quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, 40, who'll make his 203rd career start, and his 13th against the Steelers and their zone blitz defense.

Testaverde can only hope No. 13 will be lucky, because the first 12 certainly weren't.

Testaverde has a 2-10 record against the Steelers, and one of those wins came in his first game against them in 1993 as a member of the Cleveland Browns.

Testaverde also beat the Steelers in 1996 as a member of the Baltimore Ravens. He's lost two starts against the Steelers as a member of the New York Jets. This will be his first start against them as a member of the Cowboys, and Testaverde says it's the same old Steelers.

"I think their philosophy looks the same," he said. "When you just look at the game tape, it's a swarming defense. They have players around the ball all the time."

Every one of Testaverde's career numbers is worse against the Steelers. His career winning percentage, counting playoff games, is .437, but only .166 against the Steelers. The rest of his career numbers are followed by stats against the Steelers: 56 percent completion percentage (54 percent); 6.9 yards per attempt (6.3); 4.2 touchdown percentage (3.8); 3.9 interception percentage (5.0); and a career passer rating of 75.5 (65.2 versus Steelers).

"They were that great of a defense whether it was just me or an overall philosophy," Testaverde said.

It's easy to say it was the zone-blitz philosophy that bothers Testaverde, but Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau says there's more to it.

"I think the reason we've had some success is because we've had some really good players who've played really well against him," LeBeau said. "We'll be relying on the same thing (today). He's a good veteran quarterback and you're not going to fool him. Our guys will have to execute whatever we call."

Whatever's called will fit the parameters of LeBeau's zone blitz, which relies on linemen and linebackers dropping into zone coverage while others blitz. It's the same philosophy that confused Testaverde -- then with the University of Miami -- into throwing five interceptions against Penn State in the January, 1987 national title game.

Two years later, those same principles were put to use in Super Bowl XXIII as LeBeau's Cincinnati Bengals defense confounded the San Francisco 49ers - at least for 59 minutes.

LeBeau had been working on the zone blitz since "the middle eighties," he said. "There was a lot of run and shoot around then. Houston was in our division and they were all run and shoot, and then the West Coast pass offense was very popular. It was just another tool for our guys to defend those types of offense."

And it helped against the 49ers?

"The score was 3-3 at the half," he said of a game Joe Montana eventually pulled out, 20-16.

LeBeau was asked about the state of the zone blitz some 20 years after its birth.

"It's still growing really," he said. "You've got a lot of people adding thoughts to it, and whenever you've got other people contributing, it's going to expand. I see a lot of variations around. When you watch the colleges play on Saturday you see them run a lot of it.

"The offenses are more comfortable with it now. They've seen it. But the fact it's still pretty much in use is evidence it's holding up pretty well."

If the last two weeks are any indication, Testaverde is not holding up very well against it.

Against Tim Lewis' New York Giants defense, and the previous week against the Washington Redskins, Testaverde combined for only 340 passing yards after averaging 336 in each of his first two games this season.

Will LeBeau and the Steelers remain ahead of the curve and confuse Testaverde even further this afternoon?

"I don't pay much attention to what other people are doing so I can't really answer that," LeBeau said. "But we've continued to grow and expand our thoughts and ideas. All the coaches here, and the head coach, contribute to our thoughts. We try to keep on the cutting edge if we can and try to show them something they haven't seen."

Even against quarterbacks who are old enough to have seen it all.

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