Packers', Steelers' defenses evolve under Capers, Lebeau


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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kevin Greene wasn't on the other side in 1993, was not where he is now, teaching linebackers how to pressure and sack quarterbacks in much the same manner he did for 15 seasons in the NFL.

But he kind of wishes he had been. At the very least, part of him wishes he could have sat in on some of the meetings of the Steelers defensive coaches in '93.

In that room, where game plans were formed and schemes devised, were four men who would sculpt a defense that would dominate the NFL for large portions of the next 18 seasons and become a blueprint for other teams to emulate. At the head of the table was Bill Cowher, the head coach.

Next to him was Dom Capers, his defensive coordinator and the first person Cowher hired when he replaced Chuck Noll as head coach in 1992. Also seated at the table were Dick LeBeau, the secondary coach; and Marvin Lewis, who was linebackers coach. All three eventually would go on to become head coaches in the NFL.

"A fun group," Cowher said. "All four of us were in a room, starting to put this thing together."

"We had a great group back then," Capers said.

"They were good meetings right from the start," Lewis said.

At the center of the defensive development was Capers, a former secondary coach for the New Orleans Saints who was brought in to run the defense because Cowher liked the way he had devised coverages to stop Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. Also involved in the construction of the defense was LeBeau, a former defensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals who began using something called a zone blitz in the 1980s -- a scheme that would eventually revolutionize the NFL two decades later.

"It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall during that time," Greene said. "It was pretty neat, a lot of great minds coming together."

When they started, Capers and LeBeau stayed in the office until 11 p.m. almost every night for three months and crafted the most intricate details of their defense. Cowher wanted to install the 4-3 defense, an alignment the Steelers used during their Steel Curtain halcyon days of the 1970s, even though he had used the 3-4 defense when he was defensive coordinator in Kansas City. But Capers wanted to use the 3-4, the defense he helped run with the Saints. To compromise, elements of both defenses were installed in the playbook.

"I felt more comfortable in that," Capers said. "It was a fun experience. We started from scratch. Dick can tell you this -- we ended up writing a 900-page playbook."

Said Lewis, who would go on to become head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, "I don't remember that drastic of a schematic difference, but I do know we had an awful big defensive playbook in '92."

Nearly 20 years later, similar defensive playbooks might be found in both locker rooms Sunday at Cowboys Stadium for Super Bowl XLV. Capers and Le-Beau, friends and former roommates, are coordinators of the two stingiest defenses in the NFL and have brought the same defensive schemes and philosophies they crafted two decades earlier to the grandest of football stages -- Capers with the Green Bay Packers, LeBeau with the Steelers.

It might be difficult to tell them apart. Each has all the ingredients to successfully run a 3-4 alignment -- a hefty nose tackle who can't be moved, a disruptive outside linebacker who can rush the passer and a big-play defensive back who is harder to locate than "Where's Waldo?"

"This is probably the only Super Bowl ever that the players from either team could jump in the defensive huddle and understand the terminology and probably run the defense," LeBeau said. "I'm sure the nomenclature is different, but they could figure it out."

It has been 16 years since Capers and LeBeau were on the same staff with the Steelers, a working relationship that ended when Capers left after the 1994 season to become head coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers. Since then, LeBeau has appeared in three Super Bowls, winning two, and taken the 3-4 defense and his zone-blitz schemes to dizzying heights.

Capers, who is 60, 12 years younger than LeBeau, is making his first Super Bowl appearance. They will reunite Sunday, each trying to outwit the other with a defense that has their fingerprints all over each of their schemes.

"I think it's great," said former Steelers safety Darren Perry, who was a rookie in 1992 and now coaches the Packers secondary. "Dom and Dick, you're not going to find two football minds of that caliber with the way those guys prepare. To be here, to have these systems on display, I think, is great for football."

And it is testament to the staying power, and evolution, of a defense that remains the most difficult to solve in the NFL.

Rush and cover

How good is the defense Capers installed and LeBeau elevated?

Since employing the 3-4 defense, the Steelers have led the NFL in total defense four times, including 2008, and finished among the top three five other times.

When Capers left after the 1994 season to go to Carolina, LeBeau took the defense to even greater heights, especially when he returned to start his second stint with the Steelers in 2004. The Steelers ranked No. 1 in total defense in three of the next five years.

This year, they ranked No. 2 overall, but they led the NFL in fewest points (232), sacks (48) and rushing defense, allowing just 1,004 yards -- third fewest since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. It was also the lowest in franchise history, even lower than teams that played a 12-game schedule.

"When you look at what he's done and what that defense has done, they've been the standard-bearer, really, of defense," Capers said. "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."

One of the primary benefits of the 3-4 defense is that pressure can be generated on the quarterback from a number of different positions, a strategy the Packers try to employ with two players -- outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who was second in the NFC with 13 1/2 sacks in the regular season and has 3 1/2 more in the postseason; and cornerback Charles Woodson, who is used more like a safety or linebacker in most of their schemes.

Matthews, though, is the key. Teams that use the 3-4 have to have outside linebackers who can sack the quarterback and the Steelers have had a litany of those players: Greene, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Jason Gildon, Joey Porter. They have two more now in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, the most productive -- not to mention disruptive -- tandem they have fielded.

"There's no question the outside linebackers have to be productive players," Cowher said. "They have to rush the quarterback and the corners have to cover. That becomes the backbone of how good you can become."

The Steelers have become so good at it that many teams have switched to the 3-4 defense. And that has put a premium on the hybrid linebacker -- the undersized defensive end in college who can be converted into an outside linebacker in the NFL.

"It's pretty neat, really, the way it has evolved," LeBeau said. "At one time, there weren't very many people doing it. Now you can't look at any team in the league where somebody isn't going to run some kind of zone blitz. So the more people we have working on it, the more innovations that they can add to it. It may or may not fit your personnel, but I see it expanding, not contracting. I see more and more people doing it. I think that's kind of neat."

Packers' evolution

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy grew up in Greenfield during the 4-3 Steel Curtain's heyday. He used a 4-3 alignment he inherited for his first three seasons in Green Bay. But, after the Packers finished 6-10 and gave up 380 points in 2008, he brought in Capers to convert his defense to the 3-4.

To help with the transition, Greene, one of the key components in Capers' defense with the Steelers, was brought in to coach the outside linebackers. Perry, another Steelers defender from 1992-98, was hired to coach the secondary.

Then the Packers drafted Steeler-like players to build Capers' defense. The Packers took 340-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji, a Joel Steed clone, in the first round of the 2009 draft. In the second round, they drafted Matthews, a Greene clone with his chiseled arms and wild, blond hair.

"It has evolved since then," Greene said the other day, sitting in the stands at Cowboys Stadium at Media Day and remembering back to his first season with the Steelers in 1993. "I wouldn't say we had a limited number of pressures -- we pressured people -- but I think one of the main aspects now is that the coverage responsibility on outside backers in the 3-4 has intensified. You really need to be intelligent to be in this kind of defense. It has evolved as far as the reads you need to be aware of."

After a start in which they gave up an average of 335 yards per game, the Packers finished No. 2 in total defense and rush defense and No. 3 in pass defense in the NFL last season. This year, they were No. 5 overall but led the NFC in fewest points (240), interceptions (24) and sacks (47).

The Packers, though, use their base 3-4 defense only 25 percent of the time. Most times, they morph into some type of nickel defense that allows Woodson, 34, to play near the line of scrimmage, in much the same manner Capers used Carnell Lake and LeBeau employs Troy Polamalu.

"It's trying to put your personnel in the best situations, and Charles Woodson is a guy you can do a number of things with," Perry said. "He's good near the line of scrimmage, he's an effective blitzer ... it comes down to trying to get your best 11 on the field.

"That's where we differ from Pittsburgh. Their best 11 may not be in the nickel, and so you got a little different combination. One thing, when you go to subpackages, it allows you to have more variations of your pressures. You have more defenses and we like that aspect of it. We've kind of gravitated toward that."

Dinner date

Capers was sitting in the stands at Cowboys Stadium at Media Day, wearing a green Packers jacket and fielding questions about his defense and relationship with LeBeau.

He said they don't talk much during the regular season, but have a standing date to have dinner every year at the NFL Scouting Combine, which is two weeks after the Super Bowl. This year, the dinner conversation should be riveting.

"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. "Any chance that I get to look at a Pittsburgh defense, I always like to look at the Pittsburgh defense. I think probably they do the same thing with ours."

Why not? You can't tell 'em apart.


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com . First Published February 4, 2011 5:00 AM


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