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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Super DCs at ground floor of zone-blitz revolution


They called this particular defensive call "Magic," which, truth be known, was really just a quirky attempt to come up with something new and creative for offenses to fear.

They had no idea it would become the football rage it has become over the past 30 years. How could they possibly have imagined that back in the early 1980s when some defensive coaches at Penn State decided to fool around with a new concept we now know as the zone-blitz style of defense?

Dick LeBeau has become a hero in Pittsburgh for his work with the Steelers defense. (US Presswire)  
Dick LeBeau has become a hero in Pittsburgh for his work with the Steelers defense. (US Presswire)  
The idea was to drop the nose tackle into coverage, while bringing a blitz and playing zone behind it. It was a rarity in those days and, needless to say, it wasn't exactly something traditional Penn State coach Joe Paterno, known for his bland uniforms and style of play, would exactly embrace.

"He didn't say much," said then-Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. "He didn't like it very much."

It was Sandusky and secondary coach John Rosenberg who came up with crazy idea to drop linemen into coverage. Greg Gattuso, a chubby nose tackle, was one of the first, if not the first, to be featured in that role.

Gattuso, now the defensive line coach at Maryland, had three interceptions dropping into coverage in 1982. That Nittany Lions team went on to win the National Championship.

"My high school coach used to get in a big argument with some friends," Gattuso said. "They used to think I was getting driven off the ball, getting my butt kicked. He would tell them I was dropping into coverage. They all said the same thing, that it couldn't be true because I was a nose tackle."

It was true. And with that, we had the birth of the zone-blitz defense, a style that will be on display by both teams in Super Bowl XLV. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers both employ the 3-4 zone-blitz scheme, which includes dropping linemen out while blitzing linebackers and secondary people. The basic fundamental is blitz and replace: Bring a player they don't expect to rush, while dropping one into coverage they think is rushing.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau often is considered the architect of the zone blitz because he used it some in the late 1980s with the Cincinnati Bengals. But this Penn State usage pre-dates that, and it leads to a progression that brings it to Pittsburgh through the United States Football League.

It can be tricky trying to label somebody as the father of a certain style of defense in football. That's because there are so many copycats and so little documentation to give proper credit. Thus, naming a true creator of the zone blitz is an inexact science.

Was it LeBeau? Was it Capers? Was it the Penn State staff or was it somebody before them?

"I can't take ownership," Rosenberg said. "We used a few new thoughts, but people have taken them and put some new and creative ways to use them. That's what you see today."

But in researching this story, it sure seems like the Penn State defensive coaches started the rage we see today.

"We never talked about it like we were the originators of the zone blitz," Sandusky said. "We were just doing something to play to our personnel."

"I don’t think anybody invents anything," Rosenberg said. "We were just doing something that nobody else had done. We were just hoping nobody made fun of us. It was kind of an off-ball thing to do. Then somebody else modifies it and it becomes a bigger deal."

It's a huge deal this week. LeBeau's defensive legacy is tied to it, while Dom Capers, the defensive coordinator for the Packers, might actually be the guy responsible for bringing it to Pittsburgh.

Rosenberg left Penn State for the Philadelphia Stars of the United States Football League. That team, coached by Jim Mora, used some zone-blitz principles, even though defensive coordinator Vince Tobin was more of a traditional-style coach.

When Rosenberg left to become the head coach at Brown University, Mora decided to hire a coach he worked with at the University of Washington to be his defensive backs coach.

Dom Capers has helped mold a championship defense in Green Bay. (US Presswire)  
Dom Capers has helped mold a championship defense in Green Bay. (US Presswire)  
That man was Capers.

The Stars used the zone-blitz some, according to John Pease, who was a defensive line coach on that team. Pease, who recently retired from coaching, said Rosenberg brought the concept to the Stars and Capers embraced it.

There are some who credit Hank Bullough for using some of the zone-blitz principles when he was defensive coordinator for New England in the late 1970s and with Cincinnati in the early 1980s. The straight 3-4 scheme is credited to Bill Arnsparger when he was defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins. It differs from the zone-blitz, 3-4 scheme in that there weren't players dropping out in coverage from the defensive line.

Bullough and others used straight 3-4 defenses, which is why Rosenberg might be the first to take the blitz-and-replace idea to the next level.

"John is the one who brought it to pro football," Pease said.

Capers loved the idea when he saw it after taking over for Rosenberg.

"We ran it my two years there and we won championships (one in Philadelphia, one in Baltimore)," Capers said. "It was something different than what others were doing."

Mora took his staff to the New Orleans Saints in 1986 where they used it as well. As the secondary coach, Capers soaked it all in, hoping one day he could use it as a coordinator.

"I remember we had trouble with San Francisco," Capers said. "We had to find a way to beat them."

The zone blitz helped. With outside rushers like Ricky Jackson and Pat Swilling, the Saints used it a lot. So when Capers left to become the defensive coordinator of the Steelers in 1992, he took the concept with him.

On his staff was a secondary coach by the name of Dick LeBeau, who had used some of the same concepts with the Bengals. Capers presented the defense to Steelers coach Bill Cowher and the three put together what is now the 3-4 zone blitz defense.

"That first year we had trouble rushing the passer, but we had good secondary people," Capers said. "We had to use a lot of those looks to get pressure."

As the defense got better pass rushers, the sack numbers went up. In 1994, the Steelers led the league in sacks. That's when the name "Blitzburgh" started to take hold.

"I've never been around a defensive player who doesn't like to be aggressive," Capers said. "Everybody bows to the sack god."

Capers left after the 1994 season to take the job as head coach of the Carolina Panthers. He took the defense with him there and at his other stops as a coordinator or head coach. In Pittsburgh, LeBeau tinkered with it some when he took over running it after Capers left.

Even when LeBeau left for a while, the defense stayed. Jim Haslett ran it for Cowher and so did Tim Lewis when he ran the defense. LeBeau returned in 2004 and the defense hasn't really changed in 19 years.

"They do a great job drafting to that defense," Capers said. "It really gives them an advantage."

There will be countless stories on the zone blitz this week. It's been mentioned several times that LeBeau is the father of the thing, that he taught it to Capers.

As this story has shown, the real fathers might be two men at Penn State in the early 1980s who were just trying to come up with a few new wrinkles for a head coach that usually didn't like many -- if any.

"I'm not going to sit here and say we made the whole sauce, but we can say we put something in it," said Rosenberg, who now coaches in Germany. "It's hard to say who used it first, but we did use it some."

Gattuso was thrilled at the idea that that he might have been the first defensive lineman to have success dropping into coverage. He didn't see the play from the NFC Championship Game when Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji returned an interception for a touchdown last week, but he was glad to hear about it.

"I might have been the first," Gattuso. "I like that. I always wanted to be a linebacker, which is why it was fine with me to drop out. I never knew 'Magic' would get so big."

On Sunday, the two men given most of the credit for fine-tuning and tweaking the 3-4 zone blitz will be on opposite sidelines calling defenses. In other parts of the country, the men who may have hatched the idea will be watching, knowing full well that their crazy little idea may be the genesis for what has truly become an NFL defensive revolution.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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