Defensive masterminds have turned up heat on NFL offenses

Dick LeBeau, Jim Johnson and Monte Kiffin have been doing the same thing in different ways for a long time. One way or another, they've been bringing the heat.

Together they are the three most respected defensive coordinators in the NFL, three guys who between them have spent 82 years working to frustrate the best efforts of brilliant offensive minds dedicated to one thing -- making the three of them look bad. Few have succeeded and none for very long because each of them is more than simply a football coach. Each is a student of an odd art form, a master of the denial of the end zone.

Although the three have succeeded in this most difficult task in different ways, fundamentally they all believe in one thing. They believe in the corrosive effect of pressure.

"Pressure busts pipes," the great heavyweight boxer Evander Holyfield once said a few months before he would knock out Mike Tyson, his point being that you only find out about somebody when they are put under intensive and unending physical and mental pressure. LeBeau, Kiffin and Johnson approach stopping NFL offenses with much the same philosophy.

"I felt years ago that the name of the game is getting to the quarterback, causing turnovers and creating negative plays," said Johnson, who has run the Eagles' defense for Andy Reid since 1999. "That's when you win games (defensively).

"I don't think you can sit back. You have to be aggressive. Sometimes I'll blitz on the first play of a game to get after them and set a tone with my players.

"For a while there the offenses were putting pressure on us with a lot of different formations and with situational substitutions. My thing is to try and put pressure on them. I want to make them start thinking."

Actually, to be frank, what a man known as "The Master of the Blitz" really wants them to do is to start doubting. Doubting if they know where the blitz is coming from. Doubting if their protection scheme is adequate for what they're about to see. Doubting where the Mike (middle linebacker) is so they are unsure how to read his defense. Doubting the very wisdom of how they hope to attack an Eagles defense that over the past seven years has produced 342 sacks and collectively is second in the NFL in third-down efficiency (34.3 percent) and red zone touchdown percentage (43 percent) while allowing an average of only 17.6 points per game during the years 2000-2007.

Johnson believes defense should be about more than merely creating pressure, however. He believes they should be about attacking the offense, something his defenses have done so well over the years that in 1998 the one he was running in Seattle would score 10 touchdowns. A year later, Johnson was in Philadelphia running the Eagles' defense that forced a league-leading 46 turnovers and returned five interceptions for scores. Different personnel, same results.

LeBeau and Kiffin have a similar desire to create havoc, the former with the Fire Zone blitz he first came up with more than 20 years ago and the latter with the Tampa 2 that Kiffin and former Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy created and have since seen proliferate throughout the NFL. How the three of them go about their work differs in various ways, but the basic philosophy of all three remains what it was when LeBeau was playing defense for Woody Hayes at Ohio State and struck a friendship with a kid on the basketball team who shared his defensive philosophy.

"Bobby Knight and I used to talk about keeping pressure on the ball," LeBeau recalled during a recent break at the Steelers' training camp. "We'd talk about the pros and cons of it. He's a good friend of mine. We still talk every day. He won a hell of a lot more than I did but we both managed to keep our jobs for a long while."

Putting the 'fire' in 'Fire Zone'

For LeBeau, the seeds of the Fire Zone defense that he first perfected in Cincinnati and has now twice brought to the Steelers (1992-96, 2004 to present), were planted on a plane flight across the country after a meeting with former Miami Dolphins defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger, who was at the time working as athletic director at the University of Florida. The West Coast offense was a new innovation that was riddling defenses then and LeBeau was searching for answers, as he, Johnson and Kiffin do every offseason.

It is then that they scout themselves, seeking to find patterns in their own play-calling and manners in which offenses have developed to counter their moves and overwhelm them. That study of themselves has become as important to the continued success of their pressure defenses as the innovations they developed. But back in the 1980s it was the innovation that had to come first for one simple reason. What they'd been doing was no longer working.

Arnsparger explained to LeBeau that when he was calling defensive signals, everything he did was designed to find the safest way to pressure opposing quarterbacks. As LeBeau flew across the country, Arnsparger's words kept blitzing through his mind and so he began to sketch on napkins new ways to safely put the pressure on the quarterbacks who were tormenting him.

What he came up with was the Fire Zone defense, a zone-blitz package that sends defenders at the quarterback from unexpected places while dropping a defensive lineman into zone coverage to protect an area vacated by a safety, corner or middle linebacker. Quarterbacks who read the blitz thinking they are safe to unload the ball into the vacated area suddenly began seeing large men wearing big numbers like 99 or 77 standing where they shouldn't be, knocking the pass to the ground or intercepting it.

In the best-case scenario for LeBeau, the quarterback would be so confused he wouldn't throw at all, instead being deposited where he, Kiffin and Johnson all believe quarterbacks belong -- on their backs.

"I've always been a pressure guy," LeBeau said. "People say we started it in 1988 but it was really 1984. I was looking for ways to attack the West Coast offenses that had been able to pick up the blitz or hit the hot read. They were making it very difficult on teams that blitzed.

"The game had opened up. The protection rules had been changed to where they could spread out more and still protect the quarterback. I wanted to increase the percentage of surprise blitzes and force their hot read into an area with another defender. I knew we had to learn how to defend that throwing game or get out.

"Safer ways to pressure is really all the Fire Zone is. I was fortunate when I began to go down this road that Sam Wyche was our head coach. He was a (special)-play type guy. He was innovative. He was the first guy I saw using the no-huddle extensively. So what I proposed wasn't foreign to how he attacked people on offense.

"I drew up some ideas on that plane ride and when I went to him he said, 'Go ahead and try it.' I went off the end of the diving board into an empty pool many times, but he stuck with me. Plenty of coaches looked at me funny when I started talking about dropping a nose tackle into coverage and sending a safety or a corner on the blitz, but I knew what we were doing wasn't working."

Soon enough the Fire Zone was working and LeBeau recalls hearing stories of opposing quarterbacks talking about how they no longer knew who to read against his defense -- which was precisely the point of it all. Although there would be talk of blitzing, most often LeBeau's defenses were only rushing four men. The problem was no one knew any more who they might be or where they might be coming from.

That confusion helped the Bengals reach the Super Bowl in 1988, losing 20-16 to the high-flying 49ers. The West Coast offense had prevailed in a showdown, but not by much.

Making adjustments

Such innovative thinking is the hallmark of all three, but just as important to their long-term success has been a willingness to tinker and change even those things that seemed to work best.

While the basic tenets of the Fire Zone, the Tampa 2 or Johnson's as-yet-unnamed all-out blitzkriegs backed by aggressive man-to-man coverages remain unchanged, the details have been shifted, manipulated and at times temporarily abandoned for better ideas. While innovation and a fearless belief in attacking the people who are trying to attack you are what made all three initially successful, what has kept each man and his defense afloat has been a willingness to change and an understanding that what worked a year ago may be a mystery solved by the next season.

"Over the years those offensive coaches track you pretty well," the 68-year-old Kiffin said from Tampa, where he's been defensive coordinator since 1995. "You have to be critical of yourself. You can't just say, 'This is how we do it.'

"It's really a challenge because your natural inclination is to stick with what worked. But you've got guys like (Tom) Brady and (Jeff) Garcia studying you and they're like a coach on the field.

"When we started using the Tampa 2, it was innovative. Opposing offenses didn't see much of anything like it to practice against. Now it's being used by a lot of teams so they're more familiar with it and that creates new problems for us.

"It's like the Wishbone offense Oklahoma used when I was at Nebraska. You only saw it once a year so it was difficult. The more other teams started to use it, the better prepared you were. Thanks a lot for that, but it does make you a better coach because you have to look deeper at what you're doing."

Kiffin's innovations

The Tampa 2 is a defense whose roots also come from Pittsburgh with a wise old defensive coordinator named Bud Carson, who first taught the basic principles of the scheme to Dungy in the mid-1970s.

It relies more on speed than size, believing that quickness to the ball, gang tackling and aggressiveness born out of a simple but deadly approach to defense can produce remarkable results. It demands that the defensive line most often be able to get to the quarterback without additional blitzers, which is one place where it differs from what Johnson, and to a lesser extent LeBeau, are about, and it insists on the presence of a middle linebacker with the speed to get back 20 yards downfield in coverage, essentially converting a Cover 2 into a Cover 3 (the middle linebacker along with the two safeties splitting the deep zone equally).

This creates unique problems for the offense but also leaves soft zone areas that can be exploited. That's where aggressiveness and speed to the ball come in. Yet when Kiffin hears talk of how he favors small defenders over bigger ones, he chuckles at the very thought of it.

"Nothing says we don't like a big, fast guy," Kiffin said. "I like size, but I will say this -- I'll take speed over size. I want 11 guys getting to the ball as quick as we can."

Getting to the ball -- and most often to the quarterback when he has it -- are a staple of all three approaches. Each agrees with Oakland Raiders' owner Al Davis, who once said when asked to describe his philosophy of defense, "The quarterback must go down. He must go down hard."

Kiffin most often hopes to get him there with his four defensive linemen, who usually include a quick but massive defensive tackle -- like Warren Sapp -- and a fast but somewhat undersized defensive end -- like Simeon Rice in Tampa or Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in Indianapolis. That is not to say he won't go after the quarterback with a corner or safety blitz as well, but the basis of the Tampa 2 is that the four linemen will provide the physical pressure on the quarterback while the rest of his fast-dropping speed defense puts the mental pressure on him in coverage.

Dare to be great

Johnson and LeBeau favor more exotic blitzing, long having shown a willingness to send most anyone after the quarterback fron every angle imaginable. But while LeBeau developed the Fire Zone to provide a safe way to approach that aim, Johnson is an advocate of a more daring style of attack.

"What we do has changed a little every year," Johnson said. "Not the coverages but the pressure stuff. We try to change up the looks. That's not always easy but I change 10 to 20 percent of our pressure practices every year.

"You don't want to mess with the coverages too much when you have basic coverages you like, but one thing I found in the NFL is the way the offenses substitute and change formations, you have to adjust your coverages to them. You don't want to get beat before the ball is snapped by being in the wrong coverage.

"We all want speed, but I like guys with football smarts. I like a guy where if I call a pressure blitz, we have a guy who realizes where we have a weakness and he reacts to it. I want players who can think.

"They don't have to be off the charts on tests, but I like someone who can read the situation and react to it. We got one from New England this year. (Cornerback) Asante (Samuel) has a good feel for the game. He's instinctive. He has a sense of what's likely to happen. That's the way I like us to play. We're thinking but we're thinking aggressively."

'Adapt or die'

All three veteran coordinators understand that what's likely to happen this season is not likely to be exactly what happened last season and so they sit in film rooms for hours watching the opposition attacking their work each offseason. They take notes, spot trends and search for small cracks beginning to develop in their master plans.

It is then that they really go to work because while the Fire Zone, Tampa 2 and Philadelphia blitz have all been hugely successful over the years, none have remained the same. If they had, each man knows, the defensive coordinator would not have remained the same.

"It's adapt or die," said the soon to be 71-year-old LeBeau, who is entering his 50th season in the NFL as a player and coach. "It's that simple. Every year our opponents study every little thing we do and try to play off it. They're pretty good at figuring out ways to attack us.

"You have to feint and adjust defensively because everything in this league is cyclical. The game is so precise today you can't stay the same. Your basic tenets stay the same. Your fundamentals never change. But we're a little response stimulus part of the game. We have to react to what the offense is trying to do.

"Our concept won't change but our exact patterns have to change. We used to be the only ones doing the Fire Zone. There's no way you can watch a college game today without seeing the Fire Zone. You see it in high school on third down. So offenses are getting a lot more opportunities to learn how to beat it. That means we have to evolve ourselves. It's part of the beauty of this game. It's not static. Everything changes.

"Of necessity the game was less complex 30 or 40 years ago because you had less people to play with, but there were good blitzes back then, too. It's the normal progression, like in any science."

That is really what Dick LeBeau's Fire Zone, Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 and Jim Johnson's multi-headed blitz packages are. They are science. The science of applying pressure.

It's a science that's ever-changing and because they have changed with it they are still professors in sweatsuits today, three guys drawing up the plays and calling them each Sunday afternoon with one purpose in mind -- to beat back an enemy that wants to pressure them as much as they want to pressure those offenses.

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