Our second installment in as many days highlighting the contents of the Steelers preseason publication I put together last year (with the enormous help of many others). This isn't exactly a trend, at least not at this clip, but I'm having fun and enjoying this so far. Hopefully you are too.
Once I shut up and let you get to it, you'll enjoy a retrospective on recent Hall of Fame selection Dick LeBeau.
In this article, LeBeau's 50+ career in the NFL is highlighted by one of the internet's most prolific NFL content producers, Doug Farrar. Where does Farrar write? Better question may be where does he not? You can see Farrar's analysis and writing archived on a sampling of the properties he contributes to, such as FootballOutsiders, Yahoo's Shutdown Corner, FalconInsider, The Washington Post's 'The League Panel'. I could go on, really, but I'll stop. Follow Doug on Twitter if you're so inclined to keep up with what he's writing about.
Let me say real quick before handing it over - I'm hesitant to heap too much praise on national writers too often. It's hard to really know a lot about more than a handful of teams. Even when you get paid to do so professionally. There's countless of examples of national columnists who just miss the boat each week with their analysis. According to many, the Steelers have been a 'smash mouth, physical team' the past few years. Really?
Farrar though knows his stuff and writes in an analytical and insightful fashion that I was happy to have included in the book. There's plenty of 'fan' voices in the publication - and that's a good thing - but it needed some more neutral, 'trained' perspective as well. Doug Farrar brought just that in this nice piece about one of Steeler Nation's most revered figures, Dick LeBeau.
I also feel compelled to quickly say that I debated about whether or not to include this. On the one hand, I don't want to spoil potential customers into thinking it will all be free at some point. That might lead to me not being able to pay the fine folks who wrote these in the first place, then allowed me to share them with you all either for the first or second time. Anyway, I think sharing a few few things is just the right balance, and actually, after some thought, I think it makes sense to share something well written about LeBeau.
Why? Well, perhaps something should have been written about Coach LeBeau in this year's edition as he gets set to be enshrined in Caton, but it didn't make sense because A) we wrote about him last year and B) we wouldn't have gotten to hear his speech at the induction ceremony before the final production deadline.
Believe me, if I'm still doing projects like this when Coach Dad hangs it up for good, I'll make sure he gets the message from our little neck of the woods that Steeler Nation loves him for his stewardship of Pittsburgh's ferocious defenses, and for the way he comports himself while being so driven and incredibly gifted.
Black, white, male, female. We all can relate to Coach LeBeau. Most all of us like to believe we can be good at something we put our mind to. That's what he's done as both a player and a coach. It's no accident or coincidence he's at the top of his craft. Yes he was born with talent, but the man's been at it for 50+ years. And he's respected and worked at his craft every last day of each of those years.
We also like to believe we're likable, someone anybody can relate to if given enough time. That's Coach Dad. Even at 70 years of age, his players universally gush about what it means to play for him. Not just the coach, but the person, mentor, father figure and friend as well.
Steelers defenders love looking good in LeBeau's scheme. At some positions that means making highlight reel plays and raking up sack totals. For others that means being the 'back end' engine that makes it all work, the glue guys who quietly (and violently) set the table for those behind them.
Some even try to cash in on the fortuitous positions LeBeau has put them in. From that group, some wind up as lost, nomadic journeymen with tarnished legacies. Others miss out on cementing a unique legacy of loyalty and stability in search of a slightly bigger paycheck. Of course, some simply must be let go in order to fall in line with the stringent salary cap structure that has revolutionized the National Football League the past 17 years.
Others return home unabashed to say that they regretted ever leaving Pittsburgh, and the opportunity that comes with it to potentially be a part of something special, something much bigger than yourself. That's why Larry Foote is back in town. He gets it, and we embrace him with the most open of arms. The hunger and passion he'll be practicing, preparing and playing with is going to be infections. Trust me. It's the NFL - the Steelers will still need to catch some breaks to make it to the Promised Land. But malaise, lack of focus, and competitive hunger aren't going to be issues like they perhaps were in 2009.
And finally, though it may not fall exactly in line with the historical trends of how the Steelers have approached free agency, this year proved that LeBeau's players have been willing to accept 'middle of the road type contracts'. I don't mean 'hometown team discounts' when I say that either. The Rooneys shelled out reasonable and enticing cash to retain guys like Brett Keisel, James Farrior, and Casey Hampton. Keisel and Hampton, in particular, didn't get greedy looking for small gains on the margins in other markets. There's probably many reasons why, but I know one of the primary ones is getting to work under and with Coach Dick LeBeau.
'The LeBeau Effect'
by Doug Farrar
He is the compassionate mad scientist who developed an entirely new way to play defense. He recites "The Night Before Christmas" to his players every holiday season. He is the near Hall-of-Famer whose estimable playing career has been almost completely overshadowed by his coaching contributions. He is the schematic mastermind who found no success as a head coach,. He is Dick LeBeau, a/k/a/ "Coach Dad", and the 50 years he's spent in football comprise one of the most impressive careers in NFL history.
A complete understanding of LeBeau's current excellence is impossible without a review of his career as a defensive back with the Detroit Lions. Playing right cornerback opposite Hall-of-Famers Dick "Night Train" Lane and Lem Barney from 1959 through 1972, LeBeau racked up 62 interceptions in his career; still good for seventh all-time, and more than 12 defensive backs currently in the Hall. He was known as quite a bit more than the player opposing quarterbacks threw to with the idea of avoiding Lane and Barney -- he was regarded as one of the smartest players in the game -- great at taking the right angle and being in the right place. He made three Pro Bowls and was chosen for the Lions' 75-Year All-Time Team. He holds the record for most consecutive games played by a cornerback with 171.
"People would try to pick on him because he didn't have all the physical attributes that most guys had in the secondary," teammate Charlie Sanders told the New York Times in January of 2009. "But the fact that he was as smart as he was and studied as much as he did, that's what made him excel - that's why he had the numbers. He was ahead of the quarterback."
Barney echoed those sentiments in the same Times article, pointing to a potential future in coaching. "Dick taught me to be able to understand what offensive coordinators would try to do to you as a defensive back. Dick was a very astute defensive ballplayer, and with his insight and his intuition, he was almost like a coach out there playing.
LeBeau started that coaching career with the Eagles in 1973, presiding over their special teams for three seasons. He then moved to Green Bay and coached the Packers' secondary from 1976 through 1979. But it was his time with the Cincinnati Bengals that would provide him with the defensive template for unprecedented success.
The Zone Blitz
Put simply, the idea behind the zone blitz is to create immediate confusion when facing any offense that features short, quick passes as a hallmark of its attack -- from the West Coast Offense, to the Run-and-Shoot, to any number of derivations of spread-style offenses that feature multiple receivers and fast strikes out of the shotgun. In the early 1980s, LeBeau began tinkering with the concept of a fixed zone on a defensive play - a scheme that presented an intriguing combination of intense pressure and intelligent coverage packages.
In a zone blitz, a defender will drop into coverage for every defender who breaks through to rush the passer. If the scheme unfolds in the same window of the quarterback's read on a given play, that read is disrupted because the defensive back or linebacker he's expecting to cover is blitzing, and the defensive end or linebacker he's expecting to rush has dropped back in to the area the quarterback had previously anticipated would be unoccupied by defenders.
When correctly executed, the zone blitz causes several aspects of the offense to fall apart. The quarterback doesn't have the man-on-man advantage he'd expect with a blitz. The running back may have to stay in to block, as opposed to being an escape hatch. The lineman expecting to block the defender who dropped back has to redefine his assignment on the fly. Timing is disrupted by all of this - and timing is everything in any short-pass offense.
LeBeau began toying with the zone blitz scheme in Cincinnati during the early 1980s when he was a defensive coordinator for the first time in his career, but the idea really came to fruition after Bill Cowher hired LeBeau as Pittsburgh's secondary coach in 1992. It was the team's first year without Chuck Noll in the picture since 1968, and there were apprehensions abound as a result. But whether or not they knew it at the time, the Steelers had the man who would bring the greatness of the Steelers' defense back to life.
During LeBeau's three years in charge of the secondary, the Steelers finished in the top 10 every season in fewest passing touchdowns allowed. But it was not until 1995 that the ‘LeBeau effect' was really felt in Pittsburgh. That year, LeBeau was named defensive coordinator of the Steelers' blossoming defense. It also happened to be the year that Football Outsiders began compiling a new set of statistics that help paint an even more complete picture of Coach Dad's genius.
One reason that LeBeau could implement his schemes so effectively in Pittsburgh was that the personnel was a perfect fit - those pressure and coverage mixes require talented linebackers with great versatility, and the new defensive coordinator invented a Murderers' Row of 'backers in the 3-4 system:
ROLB Greg Lloyd -- at 6'2 and 230 pounds, Lloyd was perhaps the most intimidating player in football. He carried a black belt in Tae Kwan Do, displayed a ripped physique and led the defense with a malevolent combination of size and speed. 1995 saw Lloyd match career highs in interceptions (6) and forced fumbles (3).
LOLB Kevin Greene -- In his third season with the Steelers, Greene led the team in sacks with 9.0. This after 12.5 in 1993 and a league-leading 14.0 in 1994, but the versatility came through as Greene tallied his first interception since 1988, when he was with the Rams. Greene signed with the Panthers in 1996 and again led the league in sacks, retiring after the 1999 season with 160 total sacks, which currently ranks third in NFL history.
LILB Levon Kirkland, the 6-1, 270-pound bowling ball whose surprising speed was an underrated component in the defensive scheme. Opponents were amazed to see Kirkland dropping into coverage as adeptly as he stopped the run, and his versatility was a hallmark of the LeBeau defense. He enjoyed a career-high four interceptions in 1996.
RILB Chad Brown -- Brown made a great impression in his four years with the Steelers, replacing Greene as the primary sack threat after Greene's departure with 13 quarterback takedowns in 1996 alone.
With all-time cornerback Rod Woodson in the secondary, Pittsburgh's personnel was set to explode all over the NFL in the mid-1990s.
"Greg Lloyd may be the best football player I have ever seen," LeBeau said later. "Kevin Greene was almost unblockable. Then, we had Chad Brown and Levon Kirkland (at) inside (linebacker). We had two guys in the secondary in Carnell Lake and Rod Woodson; I've been coaching around this league a long time and I have not seen very many players better than those two, and they were in the same backfield. You could go on and on."
And yet, with all that talent to work with, it's the players who hold their coach in such reverence. "We love coach LeBeau," safety Troy Polamalu told NBC Sports in January, 2009. "I don't think there's anything we wouldn't do for him."
James Harrison, the reigning Defensive Player-of-the-Year, started his career as an undrafted free agent out of Kent State. How did he make the climb? "Everything I do is because of (LeBeau)," Harrison said. "If he doesn't call that defense that puts me in a position to make plays, I wouldn't be talking to you now.
Still, the LeBeau Effect seems to work better in Pittsburgh than in other places -- he seems to have a special gift for coaching the players drafted and signed by the Steelers front office. His defenses in Cincinnati frequently ranked near the bottom of the league in efficiency, and while personnel may have had a great deal to do with that, LeBeau did find his optimal safety in his second term with Cincinnati. David Fulcher, who played with the Bengals from 1986 through 1993, found his greatest success under LeBeau as a large, disruptive defensive back who could strike in many different ways. When you see Troy Polamalu displaying supreme versatility in the current Steelers' D, it's important to remember that Fulcher was the blueprint.
"He was a tremendous force blitzing and he could play like a linebacker, yet he had pretty good open-field capabilities, too," LeBeau told the Boston Globe. "Trying to utilize his ability to blitz without having the opponent just always hot-read away from him was one of the first things that got me thinking in some of the things we did."
Blitzburgh, the Sequel
When LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh in time for the 2004 season, he had a new bevy of linebackers to build that ferocious zone blitz around -- from left to right, Clark Haggans, James Farrior, Larry Foote and Joey Porter. But more than ever, the great defense was a result of coaching and adaptation. When Porter and Haggans left for different teams after the 2006 and 2007 seasons respectively, the Steelers replaced them with LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison and got down to business. No matter the personnel, LeBeau was forever tweaking and perfecting his attacks -- this is a man who wouldn't know how to rest on his laurels.
The Evolution of a Defense
"I think in the earlier days sometimes we would just completely dominate the game because people were not familiar with it (the zone blitz)," LeBeau said in January of 2009. "I don't think those situations evolve too often any more, but you can't put on a video - be it college, high school or professional - and not see the zone blitz being evoked. It's sound and it's a safe way to pressure ... it has evolved, but we're still an attack defense."
More and more through his second term in Pittsburgh, LeBeau looked to diversify. Polamalu was a threat from just about anywhere -- his coach was just as likely to send him blasting through an empty line gap vacated by the covering nose tackle Casey Hampton as he was to have Polamalu fake a blitz and roll back into single high trail coverage. Porter and Haggans would find themselves part of four-linebacker fronts in which one of two 'backers would drop, and two-man fronts would somehow maintain pressure.
When Woodley and Harrison became the stars, LeBeau demonstrated his ability to diagnose the specific abilities of each player on his team by making Woodley the coverage option and Harrison the scud missile with the quarterback as his primary target. This could happen with the outside linebackers on either side of the line, or in a "twins" formation in which Harrison and Woodley would line up side to side. At the snap, both might blitz, or one might cover. How is the offense supposed to know?
The Common Denominator
If you want to know the respect with which other coaches hold LeBeau, consider that when former Buccaneers secondary coach and Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin became Pittsburgh's head coach in January of 2007, Tomlin didn't think for a second about switching to the Tampa-2 defense he was so familiar with.
"I had to make adjustments to what I envisioned my package being when I went to Minnesota to fit the personnel," Tomlin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shortly after he was hired. "That's just part of coaching. I'm married to an approach to the game. It's more about how you do what you do, as opposed to specifically what you do. Yes, it has to be sound. But it's the quality of the detail, the belief in the men who not only install it but the guys who do it."
The Statistical Proof
DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, is a proprietary Football Outsiders statistic that takes every single play during an NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. On offense, teams are rewarded and penalized based on drive efficiency and scoring potential. On defense, teams are ranked based on their ability to stop opposing teams from driving downfield efficiently and scoring consistently.
When you look at Pittsburgh's per-year Defensive DVOA from 1995 through 2008, and separate LeBeau's seasons out from the rest, the effects of his coaching come into true focus. In 1995 and 1996, the Steelers never ranked lower than ninth in passing or rushing Defensive DVOA. From 1997 through 2003, the rankings dipped fairly seriously, with eight of a possible 14 standings of 10th or below in passing or rushing Defensive DVOA. Upon LeBeau's return in 2004 and through 2008, the Steelers have ranked below the top 10 exactly once in a possible eight standings -- in 2008, the Steelers finished first in DVOA against the pass and second against the run in what may have been LeBeau's finest coaching performance to date.
In a Cover-3 column for Football Outsiders, I detailed LaMarr Woodley's performance in the Steelers' 23-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the 2008 AFC Championship, and it was a fascinating look at the current LeBeau defense, and how he uses his players to optimal benefit. Woodley, who the Steelers selected in the second round of the 2007 draft out of Michigan, boasts an impressive combination of pass-rushing ability and coverage agility. Both attributes were in full effect on this day. First, there was a textbook zone blitz:
On the first play of Baltimore's (second) drive, with 6:06 left in the first quarter, the Steelers had six up front, with cornerback William Gay blitzing outside Woodley. As Gay crashed in, Woodley dropped back again, which allowed him to read the handoff to Willis McGahee, sift through various Ravens, and help Casey Hampton with the tackle after a 4-yard gain. Another hallmark of the LeBeau defense: No matter how many guys are pinning their ears back, the Steelers rarely lose contain at or near the line.
Then, a sack that illustrated how schematic confusion adds to personnel mismatches:
The second sack came with 5:13 left in the game, with the Ravens down by two. (Ravens quarterback Joe) Flacco went shotgun, and the pressure came out of a formation no offense wants to see: Harrison and Woodley both shooting through from the left side. It was Harrison's job to take the outside and a double-team from Willie Anderson and McGahee. Farrior collapsed the left tackle and got through, forcing Flacco to step up. By this time, Woodley had pushed right guard Chris Chester back about five yards, and took Flacco down as he tried to find any semblance of a pocket. On the next play, Flacco threw the pick-six to Polamalu that iced the game for the Steelers.[i]
In another Cover-3 article, I recalled LeBeau's matchup with the Giants' offensive line, which may have been football's most fundamentally sound in 2008:
On the first play of the game, first-and-10 from the New York 20, the Steelers brought four at the line. Running back Brandon Jacobs headed right on a pitch, and Chris Snee pulled right. Gap integrity is a huge thing when you're facing the Steelers, and linebacker James Farrior got inside between right tackle Kareem McKenzie and tight end Kevin Boss as McKenzie dealt with the push inside. As Snee pushed LaMarr Woodley outside, Farrior wrapped up Jacobs, and the Giants suffered a loss of three yards.
Then, a taste of LeBeau's expertise:
On second-and-13, Larry Foote blitzed untouched, but Eli Manning, operating out of the shotgun, hit running back Derrick Ward on a four-yard outlet pass. The Giants then got their first taste of that creative Pittsburgh defense, where linebackers and safeties can arrive from a host of different locations. Third-and-nine saw the Steelers bring five, with Troy Polamalu giving a presnap blitz look before dropping into coverage. It took a shotgun formation (and Jacobs helping with backfield blocking for Manning) to complete an eight-yard pass to (the other) Steve Smith. One yard short of their first 1st down, the G-Men punted the ball away.
There were certain vulnerabilities to the 2008 Steelers' defense -- most notably a tendency to get suckered in by draw plays with furious middle pursuit as a near-constant in LeBeau's arsenal. I noted this when the Steelers faced the Cowboys in early December and won, 20-13:
With 2:36 left in the first half, the Cowboys showed that they've been watching what their old head coach Chan Gailey (he was also Tashard Choice's head coach at Tech) has been doing with formations in Kansas City. They ran a draw out of the Pistol formation (actually, since Choice was at Romo's side and there wasn't a back behind the quarterback, maybe it was more a sawed-off shotgun?), and Flozell Adams (playing right guard) created the lane up the middle by pulling left and blocking end Aaron Smith while center Andre Gurode down-blocked linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Choice shot up the middle for a 10-yard gain.
Still, when you're facing a LeBeau defense, you never know what you'll see. Your quarterback might get trumped by the sight of a 6-1, 325-pound nose tackle dropping into the flat to defend a screen!
Tony Romo started the second quarter from the Pittsburgh 41 with a different approach. He sent (tight end Martellus) Bennett from the right slot to the backfield, creating an offset-I and getting Pittsburgh thinking run. If the Steelers were fooled, it wasn't for long; they rushed four and dropped seven. Romo threw to (running back Tashard) Choice in the right flat, an oddly-thrown ball that Choice had to adjust to as he was going forward and Casey Hampton was closing in on him. (No, that's not a typo. Casey Hampton was closing in on a running back in the right flat.) If Choice had been able to catch the ball in stride, he had another five or ten yards downfield.
In the end, as linebacker Larry Foote once said, "It's a chess match out there, and he's (LeBeau) always ahead of the 8 ball."
Or something to that effect.
The Case for Immortality
At the Hall of Fame game in 2007, the defensive players of the Steelers got off the plane in Canton all wearing LeBeau's #44 Detroit Lions jersey. The gesture symbolized the players' belief that LeBeau's #44 jersey deserved to be enshrined in Canton. The extraordinarily classy move by the players brought LeBeau to tears. What could better have defined the respect the players have for their mentor?
There's a pretty short list of people who can say that they've made serious contributions to the National Football League over a 50-year period. George Halas? Don Shula? Paul Brown? All of these men are in the Hall of Fame; in fact, they are among the Hall's slam-dunk cornerstones. LeBeau is not, and the omission is inexplicable. As a player alone, he'd have a decent argument. When reviewing his career as a coach and innovator, the discussion is foolish and unnecessary.
From 1995 through 2008, the Steelers appeared in three Super Bowls, winning two. During that time, rosters have turned over several times, and even the franchise's historically stable coaching timeline has seen new blood in Mike Tomlin. The Rooney family aside, Dick LeBeau may be the only prime factor in all three Super Bowl teams -- and all of those teams were defined by defense. The 2008 Steelers defense may have been the best of all -- how many people in any profession can honestly say that they haven't lost a fraction of their fastball after half a century?
Many wondered if the 2008 season would be LeBeau's last. It was, after all, his 50th season in the league as either a player or a coach. LeBeau rebuked any such speculation about his retirement in the days leading up to Super Bowl XLIII. Not surprisingly, LeBeau first announced his intentions to return in 2009 to his players before addressing the media. Mike Tomlin once said, "I'm not going to be around when he wants to have that discussion." For at least one more year, he won't have to.
He may be the game's best-kept secret, but the Steelers know exactly what they have in Dick LeBeau - a national treasure with the humility and demeanor of the guy next door.
Sources - didn't like the transition from footnotes in Word to our platform here, but check out the links I provided above to Farrar's work as well as the URL's below if you'd like to explore further.