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The Defense
February 06, 2006
Expect surprises, says Dr. Z, as two brilliant coordinators strut their stuff on the grandest stage
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February 06, 2006

The Defense

Expect surprises, says Dr. Z, as two brilliant coordinators strut their stuff on the grandest stage

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They are two of the true veterans of the NFL, the front-line commanders. It seems like they've been around forever, coaching defenses, devising schemes and counter-schemes, working impossible hours, treating the media's questions with such bland answers as, "Oh, we'll just work our regular defense, nothing special." In reality, their minds are on fire. What can we do that's unexpected, that's bizarre?

Dick LeBeau and John Marshall, who'll be running the defenses of the Steelers and Seahawks, respectively, in Super Bowl XL, have been coaching in the NFL for a combined 48 years. They are members of a special fraternity of defensive coordinators, all 60 or over, who have at least 20 seasons of NFL service and whose excellence is unquestioned. Jim Johnson of the Philadelphia Eagles and Monte Kiffin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are two more. Their names aren't mentioned anymore when head coaching positions open up. They're past that. They're embedded in their jobs.

"Guys like that are coaches in the truest sense," says Mike Giddings Jr. of the NFL consulting service Pro Scout Inc. "They really love what they're doing. They don't need the other stuff, the politics and having to answer to everybody. And as long as owners are willing to pay coordinators a million or two these days, they're perfectly happy."

Like old-time poker players who never crow about their skills, these coaches won't take credit for any particular brilliance. "You gear your system to the personality of your players, what they like to do," is the most LeBeau will tell you about his hyperactive blitz package that confused the Indianapolis Colts in the divisional round.

LeBeau invented the modern zone blitz, which switches linebackers to rushers and drops linemen into pass coverage. But how about sending all those little guys--linebackers, safety Troy Polamalu--up the gut, and topping it off with James Farrior, normally an inside guy, crashing from the flank? "I've never seen so many unblocked rushers get to a quarterback," said Houston Texans assistant coach Greg Roman. "[Peyton] Manning couldn't even set his feet."

We'll never know what LeBeau had devised for the Denver Broncos in the AFC title game, because Pittsburgh jumped to a 24-3 halftime lead and he played it close to the vest. He could come up with anything against Seattle. "The thing the Seahawks have to worry about," says an NFL offensive assistant, "is the outside linebackers, Joey Porter and Clark Haggans, rushing on early downs, with their hands up instead of on the ground. In other words, not in normal, long-yardage situations, when Seattle would be ready for them."

Marshall took over the Seahawks' defense this fall after coordinator Ray Rhodes suffered a mild stroke. The brilliance of Marshall's coaching can be seen in the development of his young players--defensive backs Michael Boulware and Jordan Babineaux, and rookie linebackers Leroy Hill and, especially, Lofa Tatupu, a second-round draft pick who has become one of the NFL's most exciting players. Tatupu has been a fine run-stopper all year, but in the postseason he began appearing downfield. Against the Washington Redskins in the divisional playoff he matched wideout Jimmy Farris stride for stride on a deep go-route and made a play on the ball.

Before the NFC Championship Game against the Carolina Panthers, Tatupu was leery of his basic assignment: Retreat to a spot 15 to 20 yards deep in the zone. "I don't want to be back there all day," Tatupu said. "I want to be up near the line, where I belong."

Well, in the first quarter Tatupu swooped in front of wideout Steve Smith across the middle, picked off the pass and ran the ball back 21 yards. He was part of the zone coverage that surrounded the game's most feared receiver all day and intercepted Jake Delhomme three times. The Seahawks played zone against the Panthers, seldom rushing more than four, but those rushers included linebackers and, one time, free safety Marquand Manuel.

Few blitzes--heavy zone was Seattle's modus operandi against Carolina. Against Pittsburgh the whole scheme might change. Creative is the word that describes these veteran coordinators. "Ray sits behind me in the press box and makes suggestions," Marshall says of Rhodes. "All our coaches are part of the game plan. It's very much a staff effort."

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