How The Cincinnati Bengals Changed NFL History Part II: The Zone Blitz

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How The Cincinnati Bengals Changed NFL History Part II: The Zone Blitz
(Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images)

Fulcher-2-Stay. It only took three words and one simple play call to forever change the way NFL teams played defense.

In 1984, the Cincinnati Bengals hired new head coach Sam Wyche. Wyche, who would help develop the no-huddle offense (which you can read about here), was an innovator in the most literal sense.

He had coached under Bill Walsh and he had been around the legend when Walsh began planting the seeds for what would become the West Coast offense.

Shortly after Wyche's hire, he knew he needed a defensive coordinator and he wanted someone as innovative as himself. Instead of bringing in a new face, Wyche decided to promote Dick LeBeau, who had been the Bengals defensive backs coach for the prior four seasons.

The move made sense. The 1983, Bengals defense was ranked first in the NFL, thanks in large part to the 23 interceptions that LeBeau's defensive backs pulled in. 

In his first three seasons as defensive coordinator (1984-86), Lebeau struggled. Ironically, one of the biggest headaches for LeBeau was Walsh's West Coast offense.

It wasn't just the Bengals though, defenses all over the NFL were having a tough time adjusting to the quick timing routes.

Blitzes were exposed when the quarterback made a hot read. The West Coast offense was thriving and there was nothing anyone could do to slow it down.

In 1986, the Bengals drafted a strong safety out of Arizona State that changed everything, a junior named David Fulcher. Chef LeBeau began to devise new ways to cut up an NFL offense and David Fulcher was his key ingredient. 

Fulcher had the speed of a safety, but the size of a linebacker. LeBeau watched for two seasons (1986-87) as 'The Rock,' as Fulcher was known, terrorized opposing receivers.

With Fulcher leading the way, LeBeau led his first ever top-10 defense in 1987 when the Bengals finished the season at No. 8.

However, just as the no-huddle had almost ceased to exist following the '87 season, the zone defense almost wasn't born either. A 4-11 showing by the Bengals in 1987 almost cost every Bengals coach their job.

It was on a cross-country flight following the team failure of 1987 where LeBeau drew up the Gutenberg bible of NFL defenses. With his tray-table down and a pen in hand, LeBeau began doodling on a napkin.

The doodles turned into safeties blitzing, but that had been done before. Then another doodle: defensive linemen dropping back into pass coverage to make up for the blitzing safeties exposed area.

Several doodles later, LeBeau thought he was onto something. His new defense was going to fix two problems.

One of the biggest complaints about the vaunted '46' defense is that it was susceptible to the big play. If a defensive player were to blitz and not make the play, his portion of the field would be open for a big gain.

The next problem was the hot read. LeBeau wanted quarterbacks to have to think faster but with less information. Usually, on a blitz, a quarterback could hit his wide receiver for a quick curl, but in LeBeau's new defense, that becomes a risky move because there might be a defensive linemen in coverage to pick it off.

LeBeau ran his new defense by Wyche, which was a mere formality. In 1988, the Bengals were destined for the Super Bowl, they were using a defense no one had ever seen and an offense that had never been run for a whole game (Wyche devised the no-huddle in 1984 but didn't put it into extensive use until 1988).

The combination took the league by storm.

In the Bengals opening game against the then Phoenix Cardinals, they came out in their custom 3-4 defense, however, unbeknownst to Phoenix, LeBeau threw in a few kinks that no one had ever seen before.

The NFL changed forever when Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams took the call from the sideline, "Fulcher-2-stay, Fulcher-2-Stay."

Fulcher blitzed from his strong safety position, something that Cardinals quarterback Neil Lomax had probably seen hundreds of times before.

However, Lomax probably dropped his jaw when he realized that Bengals nose tackle Tim Krumrie was dropping back into coverage. The 'Fire Zone' defense, as LeBeau dubbed it, was born.

Lomax would throw two interceptions on the day and the Bengals would win 21-14 thanks to a fourth quarter goal line stand put together by a hungry defense. The victory was the first step on the march to Super Bowl XXIII.

After the Bengals struggled through the 1991 season, LeBeau left for Pittsburgh where he became the defensive backs coach. 

The rest, as they say, is history. With guys like Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and Chad Brown, LeBeau perfected his new system.

Because of the Steeler's success with the scheme, LeBeau's creation is now associated with the steel city. Giving Bengals fans everywhere one more reason to abhor their hated rivals from the keystone state.

Surprise: Cincinnati was the birthplace of the no-huddle and the zone blitz. What else was created in the Queen City? How about the West Coast offense, part III will take a look at that sometime next week.

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