The Wizard of “D”-Dick Le Beau

Vicki FarriesCorrespondent ISeptember 3, 2009

Steelers Head Coach Chuck Noll hired Bud Carson as defensive coordinator in 1972.

Carson considered one of the best defensive minds ever to coach in the NFL, developed the “Steel Curtain”, one of the best defenses in National Football League history.

This unit led by Jack Lambert , Mel Blount , Jack Ham  and Mean Joe Greene, gave up fewer points than any other AFC team during 1974 and 1975.

In 1976, the Steel Curtain gave up fewer than 10 points a game.

Carson’s contribution as defensive coordinator was vital to the success of the Steelers championship teams. 

His knowledge was truly ahead of its time and helped form the famed 'Steel Curtain' defense.

Carson's alignments combined a fearsome front four and complicated zone coverage in the secondary known as Cover 2. (That’s where Tony Dungy comes in)

In the spring of 1992, newly-elected Head Coach Bill Cowher and defensive coordinator Dom Capers presented to the new defensive backs coach the Steeler defensive playbook that was described as being bigger than the Manhattan Yellow Pages.

The assignment was to produce a final playbook that would be distributed to the players.

The challenge: keeping up with all the revisions from both Cowher and Capers.

No one could have ever imagined that what Cowher and Capers had conjured up would become the blueprint for a defense that many consider the gold standard in the NFL.

Cowher brought what he had from Kansas City under coach Marty Schottenheimer and Capers’ brought what he had as the New Orleans defensive backs coach under Jim Mora. (“playoffs!”—couldn’t resist that!)

Cowher and his defensive staff consisting of Capers, defensive backs coach Dick Le Beau and linebackers coach Marvin Lewis, created a three-lineman, four-linebacker system that today remains one of the most effective schemes in NFL.

On a plane flight home from a game, Le Beau, Capers, and Cowher brainstormed on how to improve Buddy Ryan's 46 defense and the zone-blitz defense was born.

Buddy Ryan, father of Jets Head Coach Rex Ryan, developed the famed 46 defense in 1978 as the Chicago Bears defensive coordinator.

The "46" defense tormented teams in the 1980s and 1990s by crowding the line of scrimmage, clogging running lanes and making offenses one-dimensional.

Its philosophy was designed around a simple concept: pressure wins games.

By putting constant pressure at the line of scrimmage, the offense will not be able to run the ball and the QB will not have enough time to throw.

The 46 consists of four linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties.

It differs from a base 4-3 that the strong safety who had to be a powerful run-stopper, lines up near the line of scrimmage, or "in the box," instead of 10-15 yards off the ball.  

The 1985 Chicago Bears defense is considered by many to be one of the most dominant defensive unit in the history of the NFL.

The Steelers were looking for ways to get pressure without exposing the defensive backs who had to cover the whole field all of the time.

“Getting pressure on the passer is probably the most essential part of any pass defense holding up week in and week out,” says LeBeau.

Le Beau is credited with inventing the "Fire Zone" or "zone blitz" defense, which employs unpredictable pass rushes and pass coverage from various players.

It employs 3-4 sets, with any of the four linebackers and frequently a defensive back among the pass rushers, while defensive linemen may drop back into short pass coverage zones to compensate for the pass rush coming from other positions.

The origin of the zone blitz was considered a thought process born out of necessity.

Back then the Steelers were in the AFC Central Division and faced stiff challenges with then division opponent Houston Oilers lead by QB Warren Moon and RB Earl Campbell.

In addition, Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense was gaining in popularity with the quick-rhythm, get-the-ball-out-of-your-hands-and-cut-up-the-defense types of passing games.

Because the essence of Walsh's passing game was timing, a quick release that stressed delivering the ball to the receivers in stride, Le Beau sought to counter with a defense that got sudden pressure and from unthinkable angles.

The defense also was meant to crowd the short slant and hook zones the West Coast offense favors. Walsh loved having big receivers run quick slants.

LeBeau's antidote was to have even bigger players, like 260-pound ends, knocking the receivers off stride.

The goal was to disrupt the clockwork timing which was its strongest suit.

Le Beau describes it as basically an outcropping of the run-and-shoot offense that had become prevalent in the league at the time.

But the origin of the “zone –blitz did not start in Pittsburgh during the 90’s.

In 1981, LeBeau was a Bengals assistant under Head Coach Forest Gregg, when the team went to the Super Bowl.

As a defensive assistant, LeBeau saw his Cincinnati team beaten in Super Bowl XVI by San Francisco 26-21 in 1982

Cincinnati’s defense had not given up more than 30 points in any of their regular season or playoff games.

Their line was anchored by defensive ends Ross Browner (father of Max Starks) and Eddie Edwards, who did a great job stopping the run.

The Bengals intercepted 19 passes for 318 yards and also recorded 41 total sacks.

The Bengals played in their first AFC Championship Game defeating San Diego 27–7, limiting San Diego’s offense which featured quarterback Dan Fouts, receiver Charlie Joiner, and tight end Kellen Winslow to only seven points at Riverfront Stadium in a temperature of nine degrees below zero with a wind-chill factor of minus 59.

LeBeau was defensive coordinator for Head Coach Sam Wyche, when Cincinnati was in the 1988 Super Bowl.

The Bengals defense ranked 17th in the league, allowing 5,556 yards and 329 points during the regular season.

They had a superb defensive line, led by pro bowl defensive tackle Tim Krumrie along with linemen Jim Skow (9.5 sacks), David Grant(5 sacks), and Jason Buck (6 sacks).

Pro Bowl defensive backs Eric Thomas and David Fulcher (the world's biggest free safety) combined for 12 interceptions.

The team ended up winning the AFC Central Division with a 12–4 record.

However, Bengals lost Super Bowl XXIII against San Francisco 49ers for the second time in franchise history.

The Bengals tied 3-3 at halftime, lost to San Francisco 20-16 after giving up two fourth quarter touchdowns.

It was in the mid-1980s under Wyche that LeBeau first hatched the zone blitz on unsuspecting offenses.

The Fire Zone was LeBeau's chaotic response to the pass-happy West Coast offense, but it hasn't done quite enough to win him a Super Bowl.

With LeBeau as defensive coordinator, Cincinnati lost Super Bowl XXIII to the 49ers and later the Steelers dropped Super Bowl XXX to the Dallas Cowboys 27-17 in 1996 when he was in his first stint with the Steelers.

Current Steeler defensive backs coach Ray Horton was the Bengals defensive back in 1988.

Horton was a member of the first team under defensive coordinator LeBeau to use the Fire Zone defense.

"We went right to the Super Bowl on it," Horton says. "It was new. It was revolutionary."

The essence of the Fire Zone is to blitz unpredictably with safeties, cornerbacks and middle linebackers and keeping the secondary from being exposed and undermanned by dropping a defensive lineman into zone pass coverage.

Says LeBeau "I was very fortunate our head coach was Sam Wyche, an innovative guy, the first guy I saw who extensively used the no-huddle offense. I came back in with the ideas I had, and he said, 'Let's do it.' "

Described as a "blitzing" scheme, the call on any particular "zone blitz" play may involve only three or four pass rushers but from unpredictable positions and angles.

The design was intended to confuse the opposition's quarterback and frustrate its blocking schemes, as the offense may be unsure on each play of which defenders will rush the passer and which will drop into coverage.

The “blitzing scheme” redefined the roles, especially on third down, for players who traditionally rushed the quarterback and those who historically were charged with pass coverage responsibilities.

In the late 80’s, LeBeau visited then University of Florida's athletics director and coach, Bill Arnsparger who was known as a defensive innovator .

LeBeau admired Arnsparger’s work in developing a safer way to get some pressure.

He had seen Arnsparger use it with Florida’s linebacker A.J. Duhe and decided to employ it with Bengals linebacker/safety David Fulcher.

The first zone blitz call "Fulcher-2-stay" revolutionized the game on the defensive side.

It was designed around 245-pound Fulcher, a hybrid defender with linebacker size but deceptively good range, disguising the lines between safeties and linebackers.

Fulcher would blitz in a designated area, but to prevent quarterbacks from automatically going to the uncovered man or "hot" read, he had a defensive lineman drop back in the zone where the open receiver was headed. Often, quarterbacks didn't see the zone blitzer and threw it right to him. Or they became confused and got sacked.

"In 1984, that's when I started delving into dropping different people," LeBeau said. "We were able to take the hot read away from them."

In the zone blitz packages defensive ends will often drop into coverage in the short hook and swing zones.

Linebackers will rush the passer from every angle imaginable and players will loop and stunt around each other.

Safeties and cornerbacks sneak up into the slot to rush off the edge and often go out of character, showing one look but doing something unconventional after the snap.

The perfect example is strong safety Troy Polamalu who’s incredible, yet explosive quickness and innate football instincts became the prototype to LeBeau’s David Fulcher.

This laid-back, soft-spoken living legend has been known to draw up defensive plays on a napkin.

Linebacker coach Marvin Lewis told about a cross-country flight with LeBeau who began doodling Fire Zone schemes on an airplane napkin.

In fact napkins, envelopes, and random pieces of paper are known not to be safe around this defensive genius as he commits to paper ideas for another defensive scheme.

Soft-spoken, LeBeau is not known to yell or fly off the handle. But he will shift his voice to a growl for practices and games

There was one time two years ago, when LeBeau in full view of the camera flew off the handle at a defensive back.

Ahead in the fourth quarter, DB Anthony Smith intercepted QB Chris Weinke and began celebrating by high-stepping down the field before the play was over.  

Both Cowher and Le Beau were irate. Both got in Smith’s face and chewed him out because they felt his antic was disrespectful to the game.

“You make a mistake, he can deal with that,” Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. “He gets more mad if you hot dog and you show off. If he gets on you, you really done did something.”

It counts for a lot with his players that Le Beau was himself a player, and the few occasions when the time is right, he reminds them how good he was.  

After being drafted by the Cleveland Browns on the fifth round in 1959 he was waived and signed with the Detroit Lions.

Le Beau spent the next 14 NFL seasons as a standout corner back for Detroit and was teamed with greats such as Dick "Night Train" Lane, punter Robert “Yale” Lary and later with corner-back Lem Barney.

Le Beau played in 171 consecutive games from 1959-72 and was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1965, 1966, and 1967.

He had 62 career interceptions which includes a career-high nine to lead the NFC in 1970, ranked third in NFL history at the time of his retirement.

He also recovered nine fumbles, returning them for 53 yards and a touchdown

Le Beau retired following the 1972 season and began his coaching career as special teams coach for the Philadelphia Eagles (1973-75).

He also served four seasons as defensive backs coach for the Green Bay Packers (1976-79) before taking the same position with Cincinnati in 1980.

In 1984 Le Beau was promoted to defensive coordinator, a position he held through the 1991 season, in addition to coaching the Bengals' defensive backs.

In 1992, Bill Cowher, hired Le Beau as the defensive backs coach and three years later promoted him to coordinator.

In 1997, Le Beau left Pittsburgh for the head coaching job with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Then in 2004, the Steelers were looking for a defensive coordinator once again.

Le Beau happened to be watching the Steelers play a meaningless game against Baltimore.

The Ravens were already in the playoffs, the Steelers were out.

Still keeping a close eye on a defense that was his baby, and realizing there were a few players still there that he coached, he pondered over the thought of coaching them again.

He called Cowher and the rest is history

Bill Cowher's career record was 79-33 with LeBeau on his staff, 50-44-1 without him,

Mike Tomlin’s record thus far, 25-11-0 overall (including regular and post season).

Charles Richard “Dick” LeBeau, affectionately known as the “Wizard” born September 9, 1937 in London, Ohio has been named by the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s seniors committee as finalist for election into the Hall of Fame with the Class of 2010 along with Denver Broncos RB Floyd Little.

LeBeau has won not one but two Super Bowl rings, XL and XLIII and according to sources has hinted to his defensive players that he has "PLANS" to coach until he is 75. 

That will take us at the beginning of the 2012 season which calculates to three more years with him at the helm.


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