Steelers' & Packers' 3-4 schemes had same daddies

Dom Capers: Packers' d-coordinator installed Steelers' 3-4 in 1992.
Dom Capers: Packers' d-coordinator installed Steelers' 3-4 in 1992.
Posted: February 03, 2011

DALLAS - There will be very few defensive surprises Sunday when Pittsburgh and Green Bay face off in Super Bowl XLV.

While nearly half the league's teams have gone to a 3-4 defensive alignment as their primary scheme, the Steelers' 3-4 and the Packers' 3-4 are more than look-alikes. They are identical twins, conceived by the fertile minds of their co-creators, Dick LeBeau and Dom Capers, nearly 2 decades ago when they worked together in Pittsburgh.

"This is probably the only Super Bowl ever that the [defensive] players from either team could jump in the defensive huddle and understand the terminology and probably run the defense," said LeBeau, the Steelers' defensive coordinator.

"I'm sure the nomenclature is different, but they could figure it out. Certainly, if you gave them 2 days of practice, either team could run the other team's defense."

The particular 3-4 scheme that both teams run and the myriad of zone blitzes that are a key component of it, was devised by LeBeau and Capers, now the Packers' defensive coordinator, back in 1992 when Bill Cowher hired the two of them after replacing Chuck Noll as the Steelers' head coach.

Capers, who at 60 is 13 years younger than LeBeau, was brought in as the team's defensive coordinator, and LeBeau as his secondary coach. It was Capers' first shot at being a coordinator. LeBeau, who broke into the league with the Eagles' special teams from 1973-75, had spent 8 years running the Cincinnati Bengals' defense before coming to Pittsburgh.

Capers was smart enough to rely on LeBeau's experience. They roomed together for 6 months that first offseason, working 18-hour days putting together the Steelers' voluminous defensive playbook.

"We wrote a 900-page playbook," Capers said. "That was back when you didn't have a computer and you did it by hand.

"One day, I had about 400 pages of coverage adjustments with me in folders. When I got out of the car, my phone rang and I set the folders on the top of the car. Well, I got to talking on the phone and forgot I had left them on the top of the car in the parking garage.

"Dick came in a little bit later, saw the folders sitting up there and grabbed them, came walking in the door and asked me, 'What do you think about these 400 pages? You want to do them all over again.' I sure was thankful he came along right after me rather than somebody else who would've just thrown them in the trash."

Complicating matters was the fact that Capers didn't know what kind of alignment the Steelers were going to use that first season. Cowher favored a 4-3. But Capers had a 3-4 background, having served as Jim Mora's secondary coach in 1984 and '85 with the USFL's Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars and the next 6 years in the same position under Mora with the New Orleans Saints.

"Bill had had a lot of 3-4 background [as an assistant coach] in Kansas City," Capers said. "But they had done better in a 4-3. My background was pretty much the 3-4 with the Stars and the Saints. We had some 4-3 scheme in, but like anything, you gravitate to what you know the best."

The happiest day of LeBeau's life was when the Steelers finally opened training camp at St. Vincent's College in Latrobe that July, so that he could finally get some rest.

"I was never so glad to go to camp in my life," he said. "We literally had two [schemes] on defense and could have gone either way. But the 3-4 did pretty good, so we stayed with that."

Initially, the Steelers didn't use a lot of zone blitzes that first year. They had a very good secondary featuring Rod Woodson and Carnell Lake, but couldn't get any pressure on the quarterback.

LeBeau had dabbled with zone blitzes when he was the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati. So, late in the 1992 season, the Bengals started using more and more of them as a way to get pressure on the quarterback.

"Like most things in this league, you feature different things in your package based off of necessity," Capers said. "That first year, we had pretty good coverage people - Rod, Carnell - but we couldn't pressure the quarterbacks. We needed a sundial [to time our pass rush], the quarterback was sitting back there so long.

"At the end of the season, we realized we needed to help those guys a little bit. Our guys liked it and we had more success. The second year, we had more and then the third year was when the 'Blitzburgh' stuff started and we led the league in sacks."

The Steelers' sack total jumped from 40 in 1992 to 42 in '93 to a league-best 55 in '94. Capers parlayed the Steelers' defensive success into his first head-coaching job with the expansion Carolina Panthers, and LeBeau replaced him as Cowher's defensive lieutenant before leaving himself 2 years later to return to the Bengals as assistant head coach and later as head coach for three seasons.

LeBeau eventually returned to Pittsburgh as Cowher's defensive coordinator in 2004, and was retained by Mike Tomlin in '07 when he succeeded Cowher.

Tomlin, who had been the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator under Brad Childress before getting the Steelers' head job, was a 4-3 Tampa-2 guy. But he was smart enough not to mess with LeBeau's 3-4 success.

"It's pretty neat really the way [the 3-4 and the zone blitz] have evolved," LeBeau said. "At one point, there weren't many people running it. Now, you can't look at any team in the league where somebody isn't going to run some kind of zone blitz. The more people we have working on it, the more innovations they can add to it. I think that's kind of neat."

LeBeau's and Capers' defenses have had exceptional seasons and are a big reason their teams will be playing for the Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers finished first in the league in fewest points allowed and second in fewest yards allowed, the Packers second and fifth. The Steelers' 48 sacks were the most in the league. The Packers were tied for second with 47.

"He's got a system we all believe in," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, the NFL defensive player of the year, said of LeBeau. "He's a person that we love and we don't ever want to make mistakes and disappoint him. He lines us up and puts us in great position to make plays."

Very little that LeBeau's defense will do Sunday will come as a surprise to the Packers, and very little that Capers' defense does will catch the Steelers off-guard. Maybe that's why the last time these two teams met in the 2009 regular season, they combined for 73 points (Pittsburgh won, 37-36).

"Neither of us probably wants to talk about that game," Capers said. "I'm hoping we play an awful lot better than we did then. We've got a little bit different team now.

"I'm sure there's been a lot of discussion around Pittsburgh about the little nuances of what we do. Same thing with us. I've spoken to our offense about some of the things they'll probably do Sunday. But it still comes down to the players and execution and who makes the fewest mistakes."

Said LeBeau: "I think it's a wash. It's going to come down to who does what on Sunday afternoon." *

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