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Zone-blitz masterminds to scheme for Super Bowl supremacy

DALLAS -- The evolution of the "zone blitz" has led us to the now, a showcase meeting between two of the masterminds who have helped shape the highly effective and widely copied scheme all the way to the biggest game possible.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, former roommates who worked together during the "Blitzburgh" era of the Steelers in the early and mid-1990s, will square off here on Sunday in Super Bowl XLV, or in their vernacular, Super Bowl 3-4.

"We're friends. We're definitely friends," LeBeau said about meeting Capers in the Super Bowl. "(We're) two defensive coaches, two Ohio boys, and we like to pressure the quarterback."

That they do. The relationship between Capers and LeBeau, their cunning and their years of poaching each other's ideas, could lead to some of the more creative looks we've seen out of the system. Under the coordination of Capers and LeBeau, it's a system that's tried and true with players who can execute it and coaches who can coach it. To the latter point, Capers could have a slight edge seeing as how two of his top assistants with Green Bay -- secondary coach Darren Perry and outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene -- played on those Blitzburgh defenses that keyed a run to the AFC title game in 1994, and in Perry's case, the Super Bowl in 1996.

"Very unique guy when you look at what he's done and what that defense has done," Capers said of LeBeau. "They've been the standard bearer really of the defense. If you look at him over the last 18, 19 years and probably put their collective stats together, I don't think anybody can compare with him."

Added LeBeau: "He's been a success everywhere he's been. I'm one of his biggest fans."

The bouquets are loaded with not only friendship, but truth. The Steelers' identity has been their defense, which means their identity has been LeBeau. Pittsburgh finished second in total defense (276.8 yards per game) this season, first in rushing defense (62.8 yards per game) and first in scoring defense (14.5 points per game). It's not out of the ordinary for the Steelers to be in those zip codes or to have some of the NFL's top players -- Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison -- leading the charge.

It's the same way things were 16 seasons ago when Rod Woodson, Gregg Lloyd and Greene were ruining offenses through creative blitz packages. Those offenses struggled because linemen were dropping into coverage, outside linebackers turned into rush ends and cornerbacks and safeties masked what they intended to do. At that time, it was Capers who was the defensive coordinator while LeBeau was the defensive backs coach.

The intrigue now is that the Packers are built in the same mold as Pittsburgh and generating similar results. Green Bay was fifth this season in total defense (309.1 yards per game), fifth in passing defense (194.2 yards per game) and second in scoring defense (15.0 points per game). They forced 32 regular-season turnovers to Pittsburgh's 35. In the postseason, Green Bay has generated eight turnovers (six interceptions) to four for Pittsburgh.

"I'm sure we both follow each other's teams in terms of statistics because we've been very close and competing with each other the whole year statistically," Capers said. "I always like to look at the Pittsburgh defense. They probably do the same with ours."

They aren't mirror images, however. The Packers secondary -- particularly the cornerbacks -- is more productive, while the Steelers' linebackers form arguably the most fearsome unit in the NFL. Each defense has its own style, but those styles come from the minds of two men who can create from the same baseline they helped set in motion together years ago.

For instance, Green Bay's decisive touchdown in the NFC Championship Game came on an 18-yard interception return by nose tackle B.J. Raji, who had dropped into coverage and sniped a pass thrown by unsuspecting Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie. Capers and LeBeau could take some credit for the creativity of designing the high-risk, high-reward call of dropping a 325-pound defensive lineman into coverage. Each shared and obliged suggestions when they were figuring this thing out back in the day.

"Things evolved and grew as we went along," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Pittsburgh's linebackers coach with Capers and LeBeau. "The thing about it is the ability for Dom as the coordinator to recognize the impact that we could have with (the zone blitz). Dick had used various components of it in previous stops. Bill (Cowher) as the head coach, put his stamp of approval on it and allowed us to take it and run with it.

"When we put it together, then it was our ability to coach the players in the nuances of what we were trying to get done and make sure we kept moving forward that way."

Capers is quick to point out the main difference between the defenses in Pittsburgh and Green Bay.

"We're in our second year here running the defense," Capers said. "They've been running pretty close to the same defense since '92. So they've drafted for it. One of the great things about the stability of that organization is that defense probably hasn't changed a whole lot, other than new little things. We're still evolving. We do a lot of things to try to fit to what we think our talent can do."

Lewis says it is Capers who designed most of the components of the 3-4 and the zone blitz, but LeBeau who helped design the coverages, which in turn led to a meeting of the minds regarding the blitz packages. So much was involved that synchronicity at all levels of the defense was paramount to make it work.

They made it work then, and the Packers and Steelers make it work now.

"The biggest thing with Dick was the refinement of the coverage; how we were going to play coverage, adjust things and so forth between the DBs and linebackers or replacement defensive linemen," Lewis said. "It's being able to make those adjustments and tighten the coverage down and get the things out of it to use it to our advantage."

According to Lewis, one of the keys of the zone blitz is having cerebral players to make it work. On those Steelers teams he helped coach with LeBeau and Capers, one of the smartest was Greene, the nasty outside linebacker who is now coaching a near clone of himself in Clay Matthews. Lewis can see much of what Greene was taught now being used with the Packers' outside linebackers. Greene, who played in Pittsburgh from 1993-'95, has only coached for two seasons but is a disciple of Capers. He followed Capers to Carolina for part of Capers' four-season stint (1995-98) as head coach.

"Kevin came to training camp and worked with us (in Cincinnati) in 2005," Lewis said. "You knew he wanted to be a coach as soon as his kids got to the age where he could feel good about the time you spend coaching. He's made that progression and transition."

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.

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Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert (10) rushes during an NFL football game between the between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter Joneleit)

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