Steelers: Capers comes full circle with defense
When he was hired to coach the Steelers in 1992, Bill Cowher did more than bring in a secondary coach from the New Orleans Saints to run his defense. In a move that proved to be as monumental as it was prudent, Cowher hired Dom Capers and the two of them set about constructing a defense that would dominate the National Football League for large portions of the next 17 seasons and become a model for other teams to emulate.
Including the Green Bay Packers, even if they had to hire the original architect to do so.
Cowher and Capers had some help, though. Also on that maiden staff were Dick LeBeau, who was hired as the secondary coach; and Marvin Lewis, who was hired as the linebackers coach.
"We had a fun group," Cowher said. "All four of us were in a room, starting to put this thing together."
"A great staff," LeBeau said. "Where we've all gone from there is indicative of the type of coaches we had on that staff."
At the forefront was Capers, whom Cowher admired because he had to devise the secondary coverages for the Saints at a time when they played in the NFC West division with Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and the San Francisco 49ers. The Saints played a 3-4 defense, which consisted of three down linemen and four linebackers, and their two outside linebackers were Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling -- players who could rush the quarterback
Game: Steelers (6-7) vs. Green Bay Packers (9-4).
When: 4:15 p.m.
Where: Heinz Field.
Radio: WDVE-FM (102.5), WBGG-AM (970).
Cowher had been defensive coordinator in Kansas City when he was hired by the Steelers and also used the 3-4 defense with the Chiefs. But LeBeau said Cowher considered using the 4-3 defense with the Steelers, the same alignment they used to win four Super Bowls in the 1970s.
Both alignments were installed in the playbook, LeBeau said, but Cowher and Capers decided on the 3-4 and the defense went on to become the most successful in the NFL for the next two decades.
"The fundamentals of it are still the same; it's just different people play it with a little different philosophy," said Capers, who will have no problems recognizing his former defense today when he returns as defensive coordinator for the Packers. "When I first came to Pittsburgh, there were only three teams using the 3-4. Now about half the league uses it."
Since installing the 3-4, the Steelers have led the NFL in total defense four times, including last season, and finished among the top three five other times. Capers left after the 1994 season to become head coach of the expansion Carolina Panthers, and the only other coordinator to run the 3-4 so effectively with the Steelers has been LeBeau, who took the defense to even greater heights, especially when he came back for his second stint with the Steelers in 2004. The Steelers ranked No. 1 in total defense in three of the next five years.
"Every year, when you look at what you're doing, teams take on projects and the projects consist of looking at the other top teams and looking at what they do," Cowher said this week from his home in Raleigh, N.C.. "When you win championships, people start to look at that. I don't think there was any question a lot of study was being done of what we did."
One of those doing the studying was Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who came by the research honestly.
McCarthy grew up in Greenfield, attended the former Bishop Boyle High School in Homestead and rooted for the Steelers as a kid. He was well aware of the success they had with the 3-4 defense.
In his first three seasons, McCarthy used the 4-3 defense he inherited with the Packers, even though he said he has always favored the 3-4. But, after the Packers finished 6-10 and gave up 380 points in 2008, he brought in Capers to convert the Green Bay defense to the 3-4 alignment.
"There's no doubt my experience competing against the 3-4 and what Pittsburgh's accomplished with the 3-4 definitely influenced it," McCarthy said. "I always felt the 3-4 was beneficial from a personnel standpoint for your football team. Not only just for defense and the issues it creates for offenses, as far as a preparation standpoint and matchup standpoint. But also for your special teams, collecting as many of the linebacker body-types as you can. I don't think you can have enough of those on your football team."
To help with the transition, Kevin Greene, one of the key components in Capers' defense with the Steelers, was brought in to coach the outside linebackers. Another member of that defense, safety Darren Perry, was hired to coach the secondary.
"It seems like yesterday," Capers, 59, said one morning this week from Green Bay, where the temperature was minus-1 (without the wind) and he was preparing for a defensive meeting. "I used to be sitting in a meeting room with Kevin and Darren as players and now they're sitting in defensive staff meetings with me."
Then McCarthy drafted nose tackle B.J. Raji with the ninth overall pick this past April and then traded up to select outside linebacker Clay Matthews with the 26th overall pick. Having a hard-to-move nose tackle is one of the key components of the 3-4 defense, and Raji has been rotating at that position with veteran Ryan Pickett. But Matthews is a starter at right outside linebacker and leads the Packers with eight sacks.
Capers has taught them the same thing he taught Joel Steed, Greg Lloyd, Chad Brown, Levon Kirkland and Jason Gildon when he came to the Steelers 17 years ago.
"When we first got here, when he put in all the installs, a lot of the film [Capers] used was a lot of Pittsburgh," Raji said by phone this week from Green Bay. "If we watched 10 plays, 10 of them were Pittsburgh. You kind of got the feeling we were going to be like that."
"He did show us some of the scheme when he was in Miami, but most of film was the Pittsburgh," said Packers inside linebacker Nick Barnett, one of the veterans who had to make the transition to the new alignment. "And we got Kevin Greene and Darren Perry who ran that scheme before, so we have a lot of insight into how they ran it and how they were successful."
There is no mistaking the impact of the defensive switch.
After a slow start in which they gave up an average of 335 yards per game, the Packers rank No. 2 in total defense and rush defense and No. 3 in pass defense in the NFL. During their five-game winning streak, the defense has allowed an average of 254.6 yards per game, significantly lower than the 309 yards allowed by the Steelers defense during a five-game losing streak.
When Capers returns today at Heinz Field, the Packers and Steelers effectively are playing the same defense he helped install with Cowher in 1992.
"The core of that [original] defense has hardly changed at all," LeBeau said.
New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, who used the 3-4 alignment when he was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore, said one of the benefits of the defense is that pressure can be generated on the quarterback from a number of defensive positions.
But, most importantly, 3-4 teams have to have outside linebackers who can sack the quarterback. The Steelers have had a litany of those players since Capers arrived -- Lloyd, Greene, Brown, Gildon, Joey Porter and now James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley.
"They have to be producers for you," Capers said.
Capers had a natural in Green Bay in 260-pound defensive end Aaron Kampman, who was switched to outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. But, after registering 3 1/2 sacks and a team-high 28 quarterback hits in nine games, Kampman sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 11 and was placed on injured reserve.
Matthews, a rookie from USC, has started 10 games at the other outside linebacker spot and has eight of the Packers' 29 sacks, second among NFL rookies.
"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. It allows you to not have to expose other areas, other zones, and make yourself susceptible."
There is one other key position to the 3-4: Nose tackle.
With Casey Hampton, it is not surprising that the Steelers have been the league's No. 1 defense in three of the previous five seasons.
"It starts with the nose," said inside linebacker James Farrior. "If you don't have a good nose guy who can solidify the front, then you're going to have problems."
"In order to stop the run, you got to have him to hold guys off those backers so they can run and hit," said cornerback Deshea Townsend.
Nobody knows better than Capers. He has two defenses on the field today as proof.
First Published December 20, 2009 12:00 am