Viewed on the monitor in the Baltimore Ravens' videotape room,
Carolina Panthers linebacker Lamar Lathon looks as if he is out
for a brisk Sunday walk. As Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde
barks signals, Lathon shifts from the right side of the defense
to the left, settling next to outside linebacker Kevin Greene
and behind end Shawn King.
Testaverde turns to lone back Bam Morris and, motioning his head
toward Lathon, yells, "He's yours!" The ball is snapped, and
Testaverde drops to pass. King is blocked by the right tackle.
Because the calculating Lathon does not immediately rush the
passer, Morris locks onto Greene. But as soon as Testaverde sets
up, Lathon bursts through a gap, and Morris can only flail at
him. Testaverde sees Lathon just in time to curl into a fetal
position before the jarring hit is delivered. It wouldn't have
mattered had Testaverde been able to look downfield, anyway. The
six Panthers in pass coverage--including right defensive end
Gerald Williams, who dropped into a short coverage zone--had the
Ravens receivers blanketed.
The play, which resulted in a six-yard loss, unfolded last
December in the second quarter of a 27-16 Panthers win over the
Ravens in Charlotte, but similar scenes were played out in
stadiums around the league. The zone blitz is the rage in the
NFL these days. Carolina and the Pittsburgh Steelers are winning
with it--not only were they in the top five in scoring defense
in '96, but they also finished one-two in sacks--and more teams
are following suit. The scheme's designer, 59-year-old Dick
LeBeau, has rejoined the Cincinnati Bengals for his second tour
as defensive coordinator, and the zone blitz will be the
Bengals' primary defense in '97. The Ravens, Denver Broncos, St.
Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay
Buccaneers have incorporated chunks of it into their defensive
On the play against the Panthers, Testaverde was foiled by a
classic zone blitz: four rushers (the fourth being strong safety
Brett Maxie, trailing the play) streaming over left end, with
six players covering zones stretching 20 yards downfield.
Sometimes at least one of the players dropping into coverage is
a defensive lineman--Carolina nosetackle Greg Kragen even
covered Jerry Rice on two plays last year--while a linebacker or
a defensive back shoots through the same gap as one or two of
It is summertime in Baltimore now, and Testaverde, who has been
reviewing the play time and again to determine how this could
have happened after exhaustive preparation in practice, puts
down the remote. He shrugs. His expression is a resigned one.
"When you face the zone blitz--against a team that plays it
well--sometimes it looks like nobody's open and everybody's
rushing," he says. "You'd think with everybody on defense moving
around so much it wouldn't be sound, but on paper it's as sound
a defense as you'll see."
Just as the West Coast offense energized pro football in the
'80s, so has the zone blitz given defense a catch-up tool in the
'90s. Here is how it was born.
The Chicago Bears' 46 defense, which was at the heart of their
1985 Super Bowl season, was based on six to eight players'
rushing the quarterback, who theoretically would be buried
before he had time to find a receiver. But cat-quick and
powerful players like Bears defensive end Richard Dent and
linebackers Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson didn't grow on
trees. So 46 copycats struggled to execute the scheme
effectively, exposing smallish cornerbacks to the ravages of
pinpoint passers and tall receivers who took advantage of single
Chicago was still a year away from its impressive Super Bowl run
when, in 1984, LeBeau got his first coordinator's job, under
Bengals coach Sam Wyche. While putting together his playbook,
LeBeau analyzed why many blitzes were no longer effective.
Quarterbacks, he concluded, were becoming adept at hitting
wideouts on short routes or dumping the ball before the rush got
to them. LeBeau wondered how he could counter.
He found the answer after a visit with LSU coach Bill Arnsparger
in the spring of '84. LeBeau complimented Arnsparger on the
overachieving units he built during his days as the Miami
Dolphins' defensive mastermind from 1970 to '74 and 1976 to
'84. "I was just trying to create pressure without exposing the
secondary," Arnsparger recalls telling LeBeau.
Among the schemes used by Arnsparger in 1980 was one in which
Dolphins end Kim Bokamper dropped into coverage while two
linebackers stormed the backfield. It was unusual, but it had
been done before: The Philadelphia Eagles occasionally covered
running backs with linemen during the '60s, and UCLA coach Dick
Vermeil dropped a nosetackle into short cover zones in the '76
Rose Bowl. Those are just two examples.
Doodling on a legal pad as he flew back to Cincinnati, LeBeau
got a crazy idea. He drew schemes in which ends and nosetackles
dropped into zones while linebackers and defensive backs were
rushing the passer. "It was fairly radical, 280- and 300-pound
defensive linemen getting into pass coverage," LeBeau says now.
"But the problem with most blitzes was they left receivers in
man coverage. If we could play a zone behind the blitz, it could
create confusion for the quarterback, and maybe he'd get hit by
the time he saw what we were doing. Luckily, when I went to Sam,
he was an innovative guy."
Says Wyche, "When I looked at it from an offensive standpoint, I
saw there were problems that I didn't know how to solve. That's
when I knew it would be tough for offenses."
In LeBeau's eight seasons as defensive coordinator with
Cincinnati, the Bengals on average finished 17th in the league
in sacks and 20th in points allowed, and the man with the
radical scheme was run out of town in '91. His faith in the zone
blitz, though, was unshaken. "They didn't invent the airplane
without a few of them not flying," LeBeau says. Hired by the
Steelers to coach defensive backs under new coach Bill Cowher in
'92, LeBeau shared an apartment his first three months in
Pittsburgh with new defensive coordinator Dom Capers. For most
of the first two years the Steelers played it straight, blitzing
linebackers and defensive backs but leaving the defensive
linemen to occupy the quarterback's bodyguards up front. The
strategy worked. Pittsburgh allowed an average of 16 points a
game over the '92 and '93 seasons.
"But Bill was never opposed to doing things that could make us
better," says Capers, now Carolina's coach. "So we invested a
lot of time in the zone blitz between our second and third
years. We started practice every day with a 20-play walk-through
to get our guys used to it, and after a few weeks we really
started to play it well. I remember we beat Miami in Pittsburgh
in overtime, and it was keyed by [strong safety] Carnell Lake
blitzing and pressuring Dan Marino into an interception by
[inside linebacker] Levon Kirkland, who was playing a short
There were skeptics. When Jimmy Johnson saw it, he said the
Steelers wouldn't go far with the scheme, because it wasn't
sound. Well, the Steelers led the league in sacks in '94 and
finished second in points allowed. In eight of their 16
regular-season games, they held their opponent to 10 points or
less, and only a misfiring offense kept them from the Super Bowl.
Capers took the scheme to the Panthers when he became their
first coach in '95. Carolina advanced to the NFC Championship
Game last season, thanks largely to the play of its defense,
which led the NFL in sacks and third-down efficiency and was
second in points allowed. Now LeBeau hopes for the same kind of
results in Cincinnati.
"What I like about it is that the defense dictates to the
offense," says Bengals end Dan Wilkinson, who was moved over
from tackle this season. "We're going to do what we do. Let them
react to us."
Wilkinson, the first pick in the '94 draft, hopes the zone blitz
can reenergize his game the way it did Kragen's. An
expansion-draft afterthought two years ago, he was called one of
Carolina's MVPs last season by general manager Bill Polian. In
the zone blitz the nosetackle often fires forward, forcing the
center to engage him in a block, before backpedaling into one of
the short pass-coverage zones. "The center is left blocking no
one, and Greg's back covering somebody," says Capers, who
estimates the Panthers used the zone blitz 45% of the time last
year. "That's a great advantage for us."
Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy likes to use the defense as an
element of surprise against a predictable offense. "It's safer
than the 46, even though it's like any gimmick defense," he
says. "The more experienced a quarterback is, the less troubling
it is for him. Usually with the zone blitz versus the 46, a
mistake will cost you 10 yards instead of 90."
Miami offensive coordinator Gary Stevens isn't intimidated by
the zone blitz, but he admits, "I'd rather see the 46. Then you
face man coverage, and you can hit the home run. With the zone
blitz, there's somebody in most zones to make plays."
Forget the technical talk and strategy for a second, and
remember one thing: Because today's pass rushers are so
athletic, the offensive linemen must react more quickly and make
more decisions on who to block. "It's a circus out there,"
Jacksonville Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli says. "You've got
safeties rushing where defensive ends would be, defensive ends
dropping into coverage. I don't know who I'm going to block on
any pass play. You get 100 different looks against the zone
blitz. That's what it seems like, anyway. Usually I might block
two guys, maybe three in a game. Last year against Pittsburgh I
blocked Chad Brown, Kevin Henry, Bill Johnson, Levon Kirkland,
Carnell Lake--and I'm probably missing somebody. The whole
game's a mental exercise."
It is mid-July at the Bengals' training camp in Georgetown, Ky.
The temperature is hovering around 90[degrees], and the team is
in the heat of an 11-on-11 scrimmage. LeBeau signals a blitz
call: Dime Sam Fire Zone. The blitz is designed to attack the
offense's strong (or tight end) side, with strong safety Tremain
Mack, left outside linebacker Canute Curtis and left end John
Copeland firing over the opposition's right tackle and tight
end. Newly signed rookie outside linebacker Reinard Wilson looks
lost. "You're back," someone tells Wilson, indicating that he
should drop into a short coverage zone.
Quarterback Jeff Blake steps under center, yells a quick "Hut!"
and takes the snap. The chaos begins. Mack comes like a bullet
train. So do Curtis and Copeland. Curtis and Mack break through
and surround Blake, who is not to be tackled in practice for
fear of injury. The whistle blows. Offensive coaches yell at
their guys for letting the defense "sack" Blake, who,
frustrated, throws the ball at the ground in anger. LeBeau
allows himself a slight smile.
Cincinnati will be the best test tube yet for the zone blitz.
Pittsburgh and Carolina had high-priced, proven stars when they
made the change. Over the past decade the Bengals have selected
seven defensive players in the first round of the draft, but the
stench from their 1996 defense is still wafting over Cincinnati:
21st in sacks, 23rd in points allowed, 25th in total defense,
29th against the pass.
"When coach LeBeau was hired," linebacker James Francis says, "I
jumped for joy. Now we were going to play a defense we'd love."
The four primary pass rushers--outside linebackers Francis and
Wilson, defensive ends Copeland and Wilkinson--all were picked
in the top half of the first round of the last eight drafts.
Wilkinson has had a so-so 46-game NFL career, but he appeared on
the verge of a breakout season in '96 until he hit the wall at
the midpoint. Constant double-teaming was largely to blame for a
slump over the last eight games, during which he had only 17
tackles and one-half sack. When LeBeau watched Wilkinson on
film, he saw a 310-pound horse being corralled. So LeBeau moved
him outside. "Now," he told Wilkinson in the spring, "if they
want to block you with two, we'll bring four on the other side,
every play. After a while, they won't be double-teaming you."
That, of course, delights Wilkinson. "Finally it'll be a fair
fight," he says. "I'll be able to be aggressive. I'll be able to
charge upfield and make plays. The offensive line's not going to
know who's coming or when we're coming. This defense is going to
help me show the kind of player I am. When I hang up my hat at
the end of my career, you'll know I was worthy of being that
If he can give this Bengals defense some teeth, LeBeau might be
as valuable as a first-round pick himself. Football is a funny
business. The man run out of Riverfront Stadium six years ago
could become a genius at newly named Cinergy Field.
From afar, the man who inspired the zone blitz is respectful.
Says Arnsparger, "Dick has given the edge in pro football back
to the defense."
COLOR PHOTO: TAI PFLEGER Rams quarterback Tony Banks was victimized by the 49ers' zone blitz last September, with cornerback Tyronne Drakeford forcing a fumble on the sack.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID LIAM KYLE (3) Chaos During a preseason game against the Vikings, the Bengals lined up in a four-man front (top left). But by the time the ball was snapped, strong safety Tremain Mack (34, lower left in each photo) and cornerback Jimmy Spencer (22, top in each photo) were moving forward to rush the passer. Further complicating matters for the offense, end John Copeland (92) and linebacker Reinard Wilson (91) dropped back into middle-coverage zones after lining up on the interior front. [Snapshots of Cincinnati Bengals' zone defense in game against Minnesota Vikings]
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON In '96 the Steelers were one of the most proficient zone-blitz teams, as Jason Gildon demonstrated for the Chargers' Sean Salisbury.
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT CUNNINGHAM Even 5'8" cornerback Tyrone Poole played big for a havoc-producing Carolina defense, which last season led the NFL in sacks and was second in points allowed.