Super Bowl: Packers' Dom Capers, Steelers' Dick LeBeau pioneered the zone blitz while on same Pittsburgh staff

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 12:26 AM

DALLAS - It has been nearly 20 years since Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau worked together on the coaching staff of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but their collaborative efforts so dramatically influenced the way the sport is played that the results will remain on vivid display during Sunday's Super Bowl.

LeBeau and Capers teamed up to bring the zone blitz to the NFL, designing a tactic that the Steelers could use to confuse opposing quarterbacks and offensive linemen by keeping them guessing about which defenders would be rushing the passer and which would be dropping into pass coverage on any given play.

The two men will be on opposite sides Sunday, LeBeau as the Steelers' defensive coordinator, Capers in the same role for the Green Bay Packers. Coming up with ever-more-creative variations of the zone blitz remains a key element in each coach's successful defensive formula.

"It's two teams that run pretty much the same defense," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said Monday. "I was joking the other day that we need to show those guys how to run it. But those guys know what they're doing. It's the same style, an aggressive style."

The zone blitz is associated with a 3-4 defensive alignment - three linemen and four linebackers. A non-lineman - either a linebacker or a defensive back - rushes the quarterback, while a lineman drops into pass coverage.

"It used to be that you either got one or the other: You used to face either a zone coverage in the secondary or a blitz," former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. "So you set up your pass routes accordingly."

Facing a zone blitz, "you want to get rid of the ball, but all of a sudden, there's a defensive end standing where you want to throw it, or a defensive tackle standing where you want to throw it," Theismann said.

"So you hold the ball, and that's a problem. That gives the defense a chance to get to the quarterback even though they're not bringing extra people. That's from a quarterback's perspective. From an offensive lineman's perspective, the problem is: Who's rushing? Who's not?"

A "classic example" of a zone blitz that worked to perfection came in the NFC title game, when the Packers' 337-pound nose tackle, B.J. Raji, dropped into coverage while a Green Bay defensive back blitzed. Chicago Bears third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie threw a fourth-quarter pass directly to Raji, who made the interception and ran for a touchdown that gave the Packers a 21-7 lead. They held on to win, 21-14.

"You don't just see defensive ends dropping into coverage and outside linebackers blitzing," Theismann said. "You see nose tackles dropping into coverage. You see safeties blitzing. To me, the area where football has undergone the most change is the complexity with which defensive coordinators bring pressure."

It all goes back to what Capers, LeBeau and the Steelers established when Capers was the team's defensive coordinator between 1992 and '94, working on head coach Bill Cowher's staff. LeBeau, just off a stint as the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals, was the team's secondary coach. Marvin Lewis, now the head coach of the Bengals, was the linebackers coach.

"Dick used zone blitz concepts when he was in Cincinnati," Lewis said in a telephone interview Monday. "He's the one who proposed different ideas about ways to attack the protection. There were some things they'd done in New Orleans [where Capers previously had been the secondary coach of the Saints]. The key was that we had players who were flexible and adaptable."

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