THE ZONE BLITZ TURNS 25 IN 2009. 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 on a Thursday in early December. "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, celebrating his 50th season in the NFL in '08-14 as a fine cornerback for the Detroit Lions, 36 as a well-traveled coach—and he never was better: For the season his Steelers led the league in points allowed, total yards and passing defense, and were second in rushing.
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, with 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. In Pittsburgh since 2004, LeBeau's units have ranked first, fourth, ninth and first overall, with the 2008 team playing better than any 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."
The key, LeBeau says, is that 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 new Jets coach and ex-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, still at the office at 7:30 p.m. on that December Thursday. "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."