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Zoned in on each other

Two masters of the blitz square off with a title at stake

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / February 4, 2011

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DALLAS — Once Super Bowl XLV is kicked off Sunday evening, there will come a time or two (or more) when the quarterbacks, Aaron Rodgers of the Packers and Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers, drop back to pass and either throw the ball to a defender they didn’t think was there, or hold the ball and take a hit.

Two of the most pivotal plays in the conference championship games went that way.

Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji intercepted Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie and ran in for a touchdown to propel Green Bay to the NFC title.

Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor came free to knock the ball loose from Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, and William Gay returned the fumble for a score to give Pittsburgh a 24-0 lead in the second quarter as it won the AFC championship.

Both were examples of the famed zone blitz, which has permeated every defensive scheme in the NFL — Bill Belichick has long featured it since becoming Patriots coach — and revolutionized the way teams bring pressure and play coverage.

Twenty years ago, the zone blitz was a little-known concept that had been tinkered with since the 1970s.

It wasn’t until two great defensive minds, born 13 years apart in central Ohio on different sides of Interstate 70, came together on Bill Cowher’s first coaching staff with the Steelers in 1992.

That’s when Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau were roommates searching for a new way to get after the quarterback. What they came up with and what they have developed since parting company after the 1994 season turned the NFL on its head.

This Sunday, they will do battle against each other in the Zone Blitz Bowl.

“I have to say, it’s pretty neat,’’ said LeBeau, the Steelers defensive coordinator. “Yeah, it is neat.’’

Before the zone blitz, pressure was brought against a quarterback in typical fashion. Whether it was a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment, the defense had four predictable pass rushers. When teams wanted to bring pressure, they brought an extra player or two, and the coverage was strictly man-to-man with double coverage mixed in. That led to a lot of boom or bust plays for the defense.

Then 49ers coach Bill Walsh entered the picture with his West Coast offense, which not only featured a short, rhythmic passing game, but also developed the concept of “hot routes’’ — which conditioned quarterbacks to throw to a predetermined receiver if they sensed pressure.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,’’ LeBeau said. “The West Coast offense spread out the defense and cut it up. The blitzes that were in place at that time, they had the answers to. We defenders had to come up with something a little bit different, and this was the thought that I had.’’

A brainstorm with the Bengals As defensive backs coach for the Bengals in the early 1980s, LeBeau served under coordinator Hank Bullough, who had dabbled in zone blitz concepts when he was defensive coordinator for the Patriots from 1973-79. Bullough encouraged LeBeau to experiment, and his first zone blitz showed up in the 1983 season.

When head coach Forrest Gregg left the Bengals for Green Bay in 1984, he took Bullough with him. New Bengals coach Sam Wyche, himself a gambler, elevated LeBeau to coordinator and turned him loose with the zone blitz.

The first thing LeBeau did was visit longtime NFL defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger, who had just become head coach at Louisiana State.

If LeBeau is known as the father of the zone blitz, then Arnsparger is the grandfather for what he did with the great Dolphins defenses of the 1970s and ’80s.

That’s when Arnsparger spoke the two words that would stick with LeBeau for the rest of his career, and serve as the backbone for the zone blitz: “safe pressure.’’

That’s the essence of the zone blitz: generating pressure without sacrificing coverage.

“In order to get pressure on that quarterback, you’ve got to find a safer way to do it as opposed to all-out blitz,’’ said Packers safeties coach Darren Perry, who played safety for the Steelers under Capers and LeBeau. “It was a way of keeping a safety in the middle of the field — probably just being a little bit safer in terms of not giving up the big play — and trying to create some confusion for the quarterback in terms of who you’re bringing and making those guys think a little bit.’’

The Bengals took off with the zone blitz thanks to a playmaking safety, David Fulcher, and landed in the Super Bowl in 1988.

Combining forces in Pittsburgh Other teams saw what the Bengals were doing and tried to incorporate some of it into their game plans. And not just NFL teams.

Capers was a young defensive assistant for the Philadelphia (later Baltimore) Stars of the now-defunct United States Football League. When he went with coach Jim Mora to the Saints in 1986 as defensive backs coach, Capers used some of the zone blitz, but New Orleans was so talented at the time with linebackers such as Sam Mills, Pat Swilling, and Rickey Jackson that there wasn’t much of a need.

In ’92, Cowher hired Capers as his coordinator with the Steelers, and LeBeau as the secondary coach.

“Our first year in ’92, we had pretty good coverage people, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, but we could not pressure the quarterback. You needed a sand dial, the quarterback could sit back there so long,’’ said Capers, now the Packers’ defensive coordinator. “So at the end of the season, we decided we have to try to help these guys a little bit and our guys liked it. We had more success.

“The third year was when the ‘Blitzburgh’ stuff started and we led the league in sacks.’’

For players like Perry, the zone blitz concepts they were given — also called fire zones — brought excitement to the meeting room and practice field, and it soon spread to game day.

“I knew every Wednesday that we’d come in and get our game plan, we all got excited about what new fire zone we would have this week because each week it just kept building and building and building,’’ Perry said. “Next thing you know, we became this zone blitz team.

“That’s how much we were doing it and how many variations that we had with guys [blitzing]. That’s one of the exciting things from a player’s perspective is you know that you’re going to have opportunities. And so each week it was a task for Dick and those guys to find out which way there were going to go, what new look can we give the offense, and it worked.’’

Knowing the enemy well The key principle in the zone blitz is personnel replacement. That’s what made the pressure safe. If a linebacker or defensive back comes on a blitz, he is replaced in coverage by a linebacker who normally blitzes (such as James Harrison for the Steelers or Clay Matthews for the Packers), a defensive lineman, or by coverage rotations in the secondary.

Quarterbacks, especially in the 1990s, weren’t conditioned for that, and defenders could see the confusion in their eyes.

“Oh, absolutely,’’ Perry said. “The ability to make those guys think and make them a little bit hesitant in their reads, make them hold onto that football maybe a split second longer to give a defensive back a chance to make an interception or to get an outside linebacker that much closer to the quarterback.

“Just the thought and the idea they’re going to have people coming at them is enough to take them out of their rhythm.’’

That’s what Capers and LeBeau will be aiming for Sunday with their own playmakers ready to be turned loose: safety Troy Polamalu for the Steelers and cornerback Charles Woodson for the Packers.

They’ve gone head-to-head before, but this time a world championship is on the line.

It will be zone blitz vs. zone blitz.

“This is probably the only Super Bowl ever that the players from either team could jump in the defensive huddle and understand the terminology and probably run the defense,’’ LeBeau said. “I’m sure the [verbiage] is different but they could figure it out. Certainly if you gave them two days of practice, either team could run the other team’s defense.

“I think that will help our offenses in that we could give them a really good picture of what the other team is going to be doing. At the same time, they could do the same thing for them.

“I think it’s a wash. It’s going to come down to who does what on Sunday afternoon.’’

May the best blitz win.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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