9-30-04, 8:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Baron of Blitzburgh, Zeus of the Zone Blitz, Father of the Fire Zone, is back.
Charles Richard LeBeau, the former Bengals head coach who spent a lifetime in Cincinnati but whose career has been defined in Pittsburgh, is back drawing up those edgy 3-4 blitz packages for the Steelers that seem to bring rushers straight out of the space-time continuum.
"Oh yeah, he's back to doing that wild stuff," said linebacker Adrian Ross, one of the few who have played for LeBeau in both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
LeBeau declined interview requests this week from Bengals media, politely of course, but guys like Ross and Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons, one of the last two defensive players on the team drafted by LeBeau, were more than willing to speak.
Ross, who got cut by the Steelers just before the season started, agrees that we are now seeing the pure, uncut LeBeau that helped fuel the Steeler defense to an AFC championship, three playoff victories, and a devastating total of 93 game-wrecking sacks when he was the coordinator in 1995 and 1996.
The Bengals and first-year quarterback Carson Palmer figure to get a heavy dose of Back-to-the-Future blitzes from LeBeau compared to how the Steelers played under Tim Lewis in the recent past.
"They're more aggressive on third down than what they have been the past few years," said Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski of his matchup with the man who brought him to Cincinnati before the 2001 season.
"It's still the Steeler style, but you can tell he's added some of his trademarks," Bratkowski said. "There are more fire zones, and they're coming after you more."
After playing the Ravens last Sunday, the Bengals go right from the fire to the fire zone to face LeBeau, the man who created such zones while in Cincinnati in the mid-1980s when he came up with replacing blitzers in pass coverage with defensive linemen.
He invented it as defensive coordinator of a unit that eventually took the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII. He perfected it as the Steelers defensive coordinator in the mid-1990s, and tried to revive it Cincinnati at the turn-of-the-century with varying degrees of success.
The Steelers set up shop in Week Four as the league's No. 6 defense. In his second tour with the Bengals from 1997-99, the defense's best finish was 25th. As head coach in 2001, the defense enjoyed its best finish in 12 years at No. 9 and broke the club record for sacks.
While some like Boomer Esiason of CBS have openly wondered why LeBeau had such success in Pittsburgh and so many struggles in Cincinnati (the three biggest scoring seasons against the Bengals came in his last five seasons from 1998-2002), the current Steelers are loving life under LeBeau.
" He's not running the same 3-4 we've always had," linebacker Clark Haggans told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette early in training camp. "He's running a whole lot of defenses. He's one of the pioneers of it. He's added to our package. There's a lot of new material."
Which takes the Bengals' braintrust by surprise because they think the Steelers are pretty much running the same defensive principles since Bill Cowher took over as head coach in 1992.
"I've always though they were over the edge, over the top," said backup quarterback Jon Kitna, when asked if he has seen any changes. "They're going to do what they do."
The Bengals never really saw this type of LeBeau defense because halfway through his third season back in 1999, the Bengals went to a more traditional 4-3 defense because they couldn't stop the run with their four linebackers. He took one off the field in favor of a bigger defensive end.
Simmons said the playbook stayed the same and the blitzes kept coming, but, like Ross said, the 4-3 scheme just can't be as exotic as the 3-4.
"When you use a linebacker, that opens up so much more space inside and outside," Ross said. "You've got one less end, and another guy who can both cover and rush, and that gives you so many options."
Ross should know. He was the backer taken off the field in '99. But he saw some new things in this training camp that he didn't even see when LeBeau ran the 3-4 in Cincinnati.
"It was new to me, but I don't think it was new to the Steelers," Ross said. "I think it was something that he brought back to them."
LeBeau admitted to Gerry Dulac of the Post-Gazette this week that the 3-4 scheme is the one with which he has had the most success. One of the theories why LeBeau wasn't able to establish the 3-4 in Cincinnati the second time around is because he planned to build it around what they thought was a Greg Lloyd-type linebacker blitzer/cover guy in Reinard Wilson, and he turned out to have the skills and mentality of a pure rush end.
No matter. Everyone in the Steel City, from Cowher to the players to the media has embraced his return. It has been duly noted in the Pittsburgh papers that since LeBeau's first tenure there, sacks dropped nearly 10 percent and turnovers nearly 20 percent. A total of 10 Pro Bowl appearances in that run have dropped to six in the last six years.
"We didn't have the personnel for the (3-4)," said Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen of his days in Cincinnati with LeBeau. "I'm very happy with the personnel here."
And, LeBeau has clearly done something right early with a group that isn't exactly Blitzburgh yet. Outside linebacker Joey Porter is a Pro Bowler, but a potential Pro Bowler, linebacker Kendrell Bell, has been hurt. Haggans has replaced all-time sack leader Jason Gildon even though he started only four games in the previous four seasons. And when they go into the nickel package, three of the defensive backs are first-time starters.
But Simmons still knows what he's going to see.
"The one thing he can do is he's able to draw up defenses to get guys home free," Simons said. "If not home, at least getting linebackers onto a (running) back to rush. He feels like if he can get that throughout the game that he'll win that battle. He does that well."
The Bengals will be glad to see him. They just hope he doesn't get anybody home in his home away from home.