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Puttin' on the blitz
It goes by Blitzburgh, proudly and appropriately.
But the Steelers’ rabid, towel-waving fans in Pittsburgh just as easily could claim to be residents of LeBeauburgh when they pack Heinz Field on Sunday for the team’s home opener against the Seahawks.
It is, after all, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau who put the Blitz in Blitzburgh – and a Steelers defense that has ranked first or second in the NFL in sacks the past four season, including a league-high 48 last season and 53 in 2007.
“He’s an amazing coach. He’s had an amazing career and impact,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Detroit Lions before he devised the zone blitz that has changed the way defense is played in the NFL and, of course, the way offenses play because of it.
“He has a reputation that’s styled after the way he’s taught the game of football and affected other coaches. He’s left a lasting mark on the game.”
And much of that can be traced to LeBeau’s defenders leaving a lasting mark on the opposing quarterback.
“The Blitzburgh packages, they’re specifically designed to put stress on certain parts of offenses,” said Seahawks cornerback Roy Lewis, who played the Steelers in 2008. “There’s a lot of mixing and matching, but the objective is to get to that quarterback.”
LeBeau’s scheme features overloading the defense to one side. Then it becomes a guessing game for the offense as it who’s rushing and who’s dropping into coverage – as opposed to the send-an-entire-side-of-the-field style of blitzing the late Jim Johnson used while defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles.
LeBeau, 74, is in his second stint with the Steelers. He was their defensive coordinator in 1995-96, when Blitzburgh was populated by linebackers Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd and Chad Brown, cornerback Rod Woodson and safety Carnell Lake – all Pro Bowl selections; or “Hawaii guys,” as LeBeau refers to them. His second stint began in 2004. The names of the players have changed, but the results have been the same thanks to defensive tackle Casey Hampton, safety Troy Polamalu, linebackers James Harrison, James Farrior, Joey Porter and LaMarr Woodley and defensive ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel – this generation of LeBeau’s “Hawaii guys.”
So, is the secret to the success of the Steelers’ defense LeBeau’s scheme, or the players who are operating in it?
“They found the guys to fit their scheme and they continue to find guys that really complement,” Carroll said. “I think it’s the commitment to his style of play that fits so well. It’s become Pittsburgh and the Steelers and all that, which is really cool.”
Cool it is. Just ask Lewis.
“Their success has been a combination of the two – the system they run, and the players they bring in to play it,” he said. “But there is a specific system and a way of doing things that are being reinforced year in and year out – which is why you have so much continuity as far as players returning and the players they keep.
“Year in and year out, they find guys that fit that system, that program, and they raise them up. They start them at the bottom and they strip them down and they raise them up. They’re like a well-oiled machine. The two’s and three’s easy could get in and there would be no drop off.”
After the Baltimore Ravens trampled the Steelers for 170 rushing yards in last week’s opener, LeBeau must be contemplating changes for this week’s home opener. Right? Think again.
“He has such a belief and a commitment that he can convey that to players,” Carroll said. “He’s been a big deal to the league, and there’s nobody like him. He’s totally unique and he’s held his own style – which is really awesome after all these years, to still be the guy and still be a championship coach and all that.
“It’s amazing that he’s done that in such great fashion.”
LeBeau hasn’t influenced only his players; it’s the other coaches he has worked with – as well as those who have copied what he’s done.
“When he speaks, I listen, because when something comes out of his mouth, it’s like the gospel truth,” is the way Steelers D-line coach John Mitchell once put it.
To which Lewis can only add, “Amen.”
“They call coach LeBeau the ageless wonder,” Lewis said. “He’s an iconic figure in that city. His life is dedicated to football. He is their leader. As coach LeBeau goes, so goes the team.”
But the Steelers aren’t all about the blitz. They did lead the league is rushing defensive last season, allowing an average of 62.8 yards per game – 27.3 fewer than the Chicago Bears, who ranked second.
That, of course, plays directly into the Blitzburgh approach. Stop the run, force the opposition to pass and unleash the zone blitz.
The experience of the players in this system also helps. The Steelers have eight starters who are 30-something and a ninth who will turn 30 this season.
“You can go back years and years and years and you keep seeing the same guys in there, so they understand the scheme very well,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “They know the why’s and what-for’s of all the spots and where they need to be.
“He could probably call just about anything and they could get it done.”
Which is why Blitzburgh could just as easily be called LeBeauburgh.