One of the greatest minds in the history of football, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, Dick LeBeau turned 74 today. In a bazaar turn of events, LeBeau could probably still whoop my ass on any given day if he had to. Seriously, if I had a nickel for every time my wife was with me watching a game and said, “mmm, Dick LeBeau is pretty hot,” I’d be a rich man. OK, maybe I’d have an extra couple of bucks.
But I digress. In honor of LeBeau’s game-changing Zone Blitz, and 3-4 Defense, let’s take a look at what makes these things tick. After all, when two great defenses square off this Sunday at 1p, won’t it be nice to know a little bit more about what you’re seeing when Willie Gay gets that one big play and sacks Flacco (right before he gets burned for a TD)?
The Zone Blitz
The 3-4 Defense and the Zone Blitz go hand in hand. Though the Zone Blitz was used by the Miami Dolphins in 1971, it really wasn’t refined and perfected until it landed in LeBeau’s lap as the defensive coordinator for the Bengals, and really wasn’t at it’s finest until getting to Pittsburgh in the 90’s. Coupled with a 3-4 Defense (3 defensive lineman, 4 linebackers), the Zone Blitz can basically be boiled down to one formula, though there are many ways to use said formula: Basically, anyone can blitz at any time. You know how we sometimes see Willie Gay get in there for a sack, or Troy, or Ike Taylor? Yeah, these are not normal positions to be rushing the QB, right?
In essence, when LeBeau dials up a blitz, he chooses who he wants dropping back in to coverage, and who he wants blitzing. That could mean that on one play James Harrison is blitzing along with the other linebackers, and on another some of the linebackers could drop in to coverage and take care of the guys that the now blitzing corners and safety usually take care of. If you recall, James Harrison dropped back in to coverage against the Arizona Cardinals when the Cardinals were knocking on the door just before half time of Super Bowl 43. LeBeau’s package put Harrison right where he needed to be to grab that interception and run the ball back 100 yards for a TD.
As you can imagine, there are an infinite number of possibilities for who to have blitzing and who to have back in coverage The point of all of the different defensive looks is to confuse the hell out of the opposing teams’ offensive lines so that they miss blocking assignments when their Linebacker has just dropped in to coverage and now a DB is Blitzing.
The real issue with this defense, which is the reason not all teams use it, is that you have to find the right players. You have to have linebackers who can drop back in to pass coverage and take care of a tight end or slot receiver. The Linebacker has to be quick enough to keep up. Right now, an example of the perfect Linebacker for this kind of scheme is Lawrence Timmons. Timmons can cover many rolls including blitzing, pass coverage, run stoppage and so on, and he is very quick with his feet. Timmons’ stats don’t lie. In 2010 Timmons recorded 135 tackles including 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions.
It is interesting to take a look at the defensive players for the Steelers because you will see that they all have a myriad of stats every year. They don’t all end up with 135 tackles like Timmons did, but you’ll see Ike with a couple of sacks, a couple of picks and a forced fumble and so on and so forth. The key with Dick LeBeau’s players is that they be versatile and smart. Which is a big reason why it takes even some of the best players (see James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons…) a couple of years to get out on the field as a consistent starter. This may help you to appreciate even more the work the Kevin Colbert and the rest of the Front Office does during draft time. If we don’t find the right players, this defense doesn’t work.
Let’s take a look at the different cover options:
Basically, Cover One is man-to-man coverage all the way down the field, except the Free Safety is usually left with no responsibilities and can roam freely. Of course, you need good Corners and a great Free Safety (Troy) to make this scheme work.
In this scheme each safety covers a deep end of the field, and the two corners are responsible for the “flats,” or from about the line of scrimmage to 15 yards out. Three Linebackers then drop in to coverage and cover 1/5 of the middle field. This option is by far the most popular in the NFL when it comes to the cover schemes.
This scheme relies on the same basic principles as the Cover Two does. The only real difference is that the Free Safety plays more of a Center Field-type position while the Corners cover 1/3 of the field on each side.
Essentially, the Blitz itself will be dialed up as one of these cover formations as the foundation of the defense. For instance, Lebeau will dial up a Blitz where LaMarr drops back and Ike Blitzes whilst in the Cover Two formation, the most popular of the three cover formations listed above.
SO, as we sit down (or stand up!) on Sunday to watch the Steelers kick the crap out of the Ravens, be looking for these special dialed up blitzes from Dick LeBeau. He’s one year older and one year smarter, and he’s got some of the greatest defensive players in the game on his defense. It’s sure to be another amazing defensive year. We can only hope the Dick will be around for years to come on the sideline. If he does choose to retire at some point though, I am pretty sure Kieth Butler is more than ready to take the reigns. Butler has been on the Steelers coaching staff since 2003 and has been instrumental in the development of the Steelers Linebackers core including taking an unknown guy like James Harrison and making him the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Good things to come defensively for the Steelers. Let’s raise a glass on Sunday for old man LeBeau and thank our lucky stars that once upon a time, he came to Pittsburgh.