THE ZONE BLITZ turns 25 next year. It has become a staple of pro football, but why does it remain suffocating after all these years, and how did its inventor devise the scheme in the first place? "Necessity was the mother of invention," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said last week. "When I played, offenses ran [the ball] probably 65 percent of the plays. As time went on, it was just about reversed. We needed to be more imaginative to stop these passing games."
LeBeau, the youngest-looking 71-year-old coach in NFL history, is celebrating his 50th season in the NFL this year—14 as a fine cornerback for the Detroit Lions, 36 as a well-traveled coach—and he has never been better: Through 15 weeks his Steelers lead the league in points allowed, total yards and passing D, and are second in rushing. No NFL team since the 1959 Giants has finished a season No. 1 in all four categories.
LeBeau was a good pal of Bob Knight's when both attended Ohio State in the late '50s, and they've kept in touch to this day. Their conversations inevitably turn to defensive pressure on the ball. It worked for Knight on the basketball court, and it has worked for LeBeau, especially since the idea of safe pressure came to him while preparing for his first coordinator job, in Cincinnati in 1984. While scouting for the '84 draft, LeBeau talked to LSU coach Bill Arnsparger about pressuring the passer while still being able to cover receivers. That got LeBeau to thinking: On obvious passing downs, what if he dropped a defensive lineman or two or a linebacker into a shallow zone and blitzed a defensive back or linebacker? Zones wouldn't be left unmanned, and by the time the quarterback saw an open receiver, the confusing blitz package would have—hopefully—done its job. The zone blitz was born.
LeBeau's scheme began to flourish when he joined Bill Cowher's Steelers staff as secondary coach in 1992, and it has really taken off for him since '03, LeBeau's single season as a Bills assistant. That year Buffalo improved from 15th in total defense to second, and the players bought into the scheme on opening day when 335-pound defensive tackle Sam Adams dropped into the middle linebacker's zone, picked off Tom Brady and returned the interception 37 yards for a touchdown. In Pittsburgh since 2004, LeBeau's units have ranked first, fourth, ninth and first overall, with this year's team playing better than any unit LeBeau has coached.
The Steelers may have the two perfect outside linebackers for the zone blitz: five-year veteran James Harrison and second-year man LaMarr Woodley. They're equally adept at coverage and rushing the passer, and the 265-pound Woodley is a good run stuffer. "I was a 4--3 end at Michigan, and I think I dropped into coverage six plays there," Woodley says. "When I got here, I knew they were drafting me to pressure the quarterback, and I didn't know why they'd want me to drop back. But I drop maybe 40, 50 percent of the time now, and I see why. The tackle doesn't know what I'm doing, and it keeps me fresh. If you're not rushing, not fighting with someone, you're running with a receiver." On Nov. 30 that meant covering Patriots wideout Randy Moss. "They've picked the perfect players for that system—athletic guys who can drop into coverage," says Titans coordinator Jim Schwartz. That's the key, LeBeau says. Linemen have to be nimble, corners physical and linebackers versatile. And it helps to have a leader like strong safety Troy Polamalu, equally good stuffing the run and staying with wideouts. "I've stolen from Dick LeBeau," says Ravens coordinator Rex Ryan. "If I'm going to watch one team now, it's Pittsburgh."
The defense, and the man, show few signs of aging. "It's a young man's job," LeBeau said last Thursday, still at the office at 7:30 p.m. "I don't know how you're supposed to feel at 71, but I very seldom need the alarm clock to get up. I guess that's a good sign."