Doodling on a legal pad as he flew back to Cincinnati, LeBeau got a crazy idea. He drew schemes in which ends and nose-tackles dropped into zones while linebackers and defensive backs were rushing the passer. "It was fairly radical, 280-and 300-pound defensive linemen getting into pass coverage," LeBeau says now. "But the problem with most blitzes was they left receivers in man coverage. If we could play a zone behind the blitz, it could create confusion for the quarterback, and maybe he'd get hit by the time he saw what we were doing. Luckily, when I went to Sam, he was an innovative guy."
Says Wyche, "When I looked at it from an offensive standpoint, I saw there were problems that I didn't know how to solve. That's when I knew it would be tough for offenses."
In LeBeau's eight seasons as defensive coordinator with Cincinnati, the Bengals on average finished 17th in the league in sacks and 20th in points allowed, and the man with the radical scheme was run out of town in '91. His faith in the zone blitz, though, was unshaken. "They didn't invent the airplane without a few of them not flying," LeBeau says. Hired by the Steelers to coach defensive backs under new coach Bill Cowher in '92, LeBeau shared an apartment his first three months in Pittsburgh with new defensive coordinator Dom Capers. For most of the first two years the Steelers played it straight, blitzing linebackers and defensive backs but leaving the defensive linemen to occupy the quarterback's bodyguards up front. The strategy worked. Pittsburgh allowed an average of 16 points a game over the '92 and '93 seasons.
"But Bill was never opposed to doing things that could make us better," says Capers, now Carolina's coach. "So we invested a lot of time in the zone blitz between our second and third years. We started practice every day with a 20-play walk-through to get our guys used to it, and after a few weeks we really started to play it well. I remember we beat Miami in Pittsburgh in overtime, and it was keyed by [strong safety] Carnell Lake blitzing and pressuring Dan Marino into an interception by [inside linebacker] Levon Kirkland, who was playing a short coverage zone."
There were skeptics. When Jimmy Johnson saw it, he said the Steelers wouldn't go far with the scheme, because it wasn't sound. Well, the Steelers led the league in sacks in '94 and finished second in points allowed. In eight of their 16 regular-season games, they held their opponent to 10 points or less, and only a misfiring offense kept them from the Super Bowl.
Capers took the scheme to the Panthers when he became their first coach in '95. Carolina advanced to the NFC Championship Game last season, thanks largely to the play of its defense, which led the NFL in sacks and third-down efficiency and was second in points allowed. Now LeBeau hopes for the same kind of results in Cincinnati.
"What I like about it is that the defense dictates to the offense," says Bengals end Dan Wilkinson, who was moved over from tackle this season. "We're going to do what we do. Let them react to us."
Wilkinson, the first pick in the '94 draft, hopes the zone blitz can reenergize his game the way it did Kragen's. An expansion-draft afterthought two years ago, he was called one of Carolina's MVPs last season by general manager Bill Polian. In the zone blitz the nosetackle often fires forward, forcing the center to engage him in a block, before backpedaling into one of the short pass-coverage zones. "The center is left blocking no one, and Greg's back covering somebody," says Capers, who estimates the Panthers used the zone blitz 45% of the time last year. "That's a great advantage for us."
Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy likes to use the defense as an element of surprise against a predictable offense. "It's safer than the 46, even though it's like any gimmick defense," he says. "The more experienced a quarterback is, the less troubling it is for him. Usually with the zone blitz versus the 46, a mistake will cost you 10 yards instead of 90."
Miami offensive coordinator Gary Stevens isn't intimidated by the zone blitz, but he admits, "I'd rather see the 46. Then you face man coverage, and you can hit the home run. With the zone blitz, there's somebody in most zones to make plays."