- Ron Jaworski, NFL analyst / writer
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Editor's Note: The following is the fourth in a series of excerpts from Ron Jaworski's book, "The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays."
Dick LeBeau is a man of many talents. He can repair wristwatches, play guitar, and has a photographic memory. He also developed what I believe is the most important and long-lasting defensive concept the NFL has seen in the past two decades: the Zone blitz. And I'm in good company because Patriots coach Bill Belichick feels the same way: "To me, LeBeau's place in history is secure as creator of the Zone blitz. The fact that he not only created it but hasn't really ever had to modify it is incredible. I can't find anything else in football to compare it with."
In its simplest terms, the Zone blitz is a flexible defensive set designed to bewilder quarterbacks and their blockers. Its main premise is to create doubt for the offense in identifying who's rushing and who's in coverage. It's executed by trading off the conventional rush and coverage responsibilities of the defense. On any play, there is the potential for one defender to swap his role with another.
This is often called "personnel exchange," and here's how it works: When the ball is snapped, designated defensive linemen can drop into coverage instead of rushing the passer, while selected linebackers or defensive backs switch from their traditional coverage responsibilities to apply pocket pressure. The hoped-for result is mass confusion for the offensive linemen.
Ultimately, the main goal is to impact the quarterback's progressions and delay what he's reading across the line. Obviously, defenses can vary who they send and drop off on every snap. A nose tackle could rush on one play, then slip into coverage on the next. Safeties can blitz two times in a row and then play a deep zone. The combinations are limitless, making it extremely tough for offenses to sort through all the possibilities as to who is rushing and who is covering.
Just think about it: If defensive linemen are dropping into coverage, then it's a sure thing they're not going to be playing man-to-man. They can't. Those guys are simply too big and slow to stay with NFL-caliber receivers. So the coverage of this defense must be zone based. In the mid to late 1980s, this was a real departure from the prevailing pressure concepts of that era. Fortunately Sam Wyche, Cincinnati's new head coach, was receptive to fresh ideas, no matter how bizarre they might have seemed at first.
After another year of continuous discussion and planning, LeBeau had his new system drawn up and ready to present to the team. "These concepts were hard," said Wyche. "You were asking players to do things at their position they'd never done before." But after more than a decade as an NFL assistant, LeBeau had finally gotten a coordinator's job, and he didn't want to blow his chance. "I will always be grateful to Sam for what he did," he said. "I came to him with these ideas, and a lot of other people would have shown me the door. I don't think there were many coaches who would have agreed to devote significant practice time to prepare our defense in this new style of attack. We took some wrong turns and had some pretty ugly looking defenses sometimes. But it was all part of the process to try and decide how far off the diving board we could go."
We want to trick them with a guy they're not figuring on coming, or somebody who shows up in a place you'd never expect him to be. That's the concept in a nutshell: You hold them by the nose, then sneak around and kick them in the tail-- just like General Patton used to say."
Innovations come about as a reaction to what people on the other side of the ball are trying. The creative timing and rhythm-based pass offenses of Don Coryell and Bill Walsh mandated a response from thinkers like Dick LeBeau. "We had to do
something," said Dick. "They changed the pass protection rules to help offensive linemen. And they moved the hash marks into the middle of the field. That meant the sideline was now a long way away, opening the passing game even more. I've always said that the sideline is a defender's best friend— it's never missed a tackle yet. That 'friend' wasn't there much to help my people anymore."
With so many of the game's elements tilted in the offense's favor, LeBeau believed that his best chance to stop opponents lay in emphasizing deception. Since defenses weren't rushing more than the offense could block, LeBeau had to create the illusion of pressure. He wanted to force offensive linemen and quarterbacks to react to things that weren't actually going to happen. "With the old pressures, quarterbacks kind of knew where to go with the ball," Dick explained. "As soon as a defense would show one particular guy rushing, a receiver would break off his route accordingly, and the quarterback would get the ball out to him. So I'm thinking it would be nice to trap the quarterback and make him think a certain kind of pressure is coming early in the down. Then as things progress later in the down, we actually have an entirely different look. We want to trick them with a guy they're not figuring on coming, or somebody who shows up in a place you'd never expect him to be. That's the concept in a nutshell: You hold them by the nose, then sneak around and kick them in the tail— just like General Patton used to say."
Chargers coach Sid Gillman once asked a college math professor to help him apply geometry to determine where his receivers needed to be in San Diego's pass offense. Dick LeBeau is so intelligent that he calculated his defenders' angles all by himself! "It just dawned on me that there's a geometric concept to football," he explained.
"The game is played on a rectangle, and within that rectangle, the offensive players fit into multiple levels that force opponents to defend the whole field. Offenses were literally creating squares and triangles with their routes. I thought it might be a good idea to match those shapes with squares and triangles of my own. I wanted to put my people in areas where the offense was sending its players."
That produced the second component that made LeBeau's strategy so brilliant: the aggressiveness of its coverage. The Bengals, and later the Steelers, didn't just sit back passively, as in traditional zones. Theirs was a proactive matchup zone incorporating man-to-man concepts. It was tailor-made to compete against an offense's combination routes: routes determined by both the location and distribution of receivers; how many receivers are aligned on each side of the formation; and whether they're wideouts, tight ends, or running backs.
LeBeau didn't school his players to defend specific areas. They did cover a receiver coming into their space, but they had to know which one it was before it happened. And they needed to know what route was coming, then try to break it up. As the defender moved to the ball, he had to take what LeBeau called the "intercept angle."
It was here where LeBeau was especially unpredictable. Dick has always believed that you had to have one wild card in your defense-- one guy who acts purely on his own instincts. This makes the Zone blitz even harder to contain, because the improvising player can pop up anywhere at anytime. In Cincinnati, it was David Fulcher, the 240-pound safety. He was violating the tendencies of LeBeau's defense, which is exactly what Dick wanted from him. Fulcher's massive size kept him from being a top cover guy, but that same bulk was a real asset when he played near the line of scrimmage as a run stopper or blitzer. And that flexibility allowed LeBeau to blitz other players from odd angles or to crowd the middle against quick slants and hook patterns.
For Cincinnati, the Zone blitz's finest moment came in Super Bowl XXIII. Through three quarters, the Bengals had held Bill Walsh's powerful 49ers offense to a pair of field goals and still led 16-13 in the final minutes. "Up till then, we'd played pretty aggressively against them," Wyche bragged. "The main reason we were ahead late in that game was LeBeau's defense. The one thing I think we could have done differently was not go to the prevent defense so much on the last drive."
Solomon Wilcots shakes his head when he thinks about how close the Bengals came to winning a world championship. "We were kicking their ass," said Wilcots, a defensive back on that Cincinnati team. "They couldn't run on us, couldn't throw. And on that final drive, we had them in a second-and-20. This was the pivotal play of the game. We had Jerry Rice doubled from the outside corner, with the safety rotating down. If we'd played it right, we would have had a pick. But after the snap, [cornerback] Ray Horton collided with Fulcher and [cornerback] Eric Thomas. Three Bengals got tangled up. Rice makes the catch and goes streaking down the field for 27 yards. At that point, I knew we weren't going to win. And what hurts most is that LeBeau called the perfect play! We had them right where we wanted them! Dick's call was on the money; we should have picked it off and maybe even run it in for a score. Instead [San Francisco wide receiver] John Taylor catches the winning touchdown pass two plays later. If we'd just done what we were supposed to do, I'd have a Super Bowl ring on my finger right now."
From the book, "THE GAMES THAT CHANGED THE GAME: THE EVOLUTION OF THE NFL IN SEVEN SUNDAYS" by Ron Jaworski, with Greg Cosell and David Plaut. Copyright (c) 2010 by Ron Jaworski. Reprinted by arrangement with ESPN Books, an imprint of ESPN, Inc., New York and Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
In "The Games That Changed the Game: The Evolution of the NFL in Seven Sundays," Ron Jaworski takes an in-depth look at seven coaches who exhibited both creativity and courage in bucking established football strategies.