5-18-01, 5:55 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Call it the LeDuff Defense.
All eyes have been on the offense.
Bob Bratkowski's Xs and Os.
Corey Dillon's Ps and Qs.
Akili Smith and the cast of QBs.
Meanwhile, new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner and head coach Dick LeBeau are spelling out a more subtle and understated overhaul on their side of the ball.
"Coach Duffner is more of a straight vanilla guy," said outside linebacker Takeo Spikes, the defensive captain.
"With Coach LeBeau, you're talking about giving a lot of different fronts so the offense doesn't recognize what you're in. Coach Duffner is more like, 'Who cares what we're in? Let's get down to basics and stop them.' We'll still be multiple and still change, but we want to get three or four things down and do them well."
Duffner may be more of a straight man. LeBeau may be more a master of multiplicity. But Duffner is relying on LeBeau's experience and LeBeau is relying on Duffner's detail.
The LeDuff Defense.
Duffner, the youngest coordinator in the country at age 23 at the University of Cincinnati in the late '70s, had his initial grounding in defense under George Hill in his graduate assistant days at Ohio State. Hill, who went on to the NFL, was known to play it straight with a safety in the middle of the field at all times.
But Duffner's education in the pro game came as a linebackers coach at the knee of LeBeau, an aggressive player, coach and Civil War buff who built his philosophy on attacking.
The LeDuff Defense may turn out to be a little of both.
"Coach LeBeau is a master of getting pressure," Duffner said. "Not just in the
passing game, but also in the running game. He has a great knack for using players' strengths.
"He knows how to scheme. You'd be crazy not to lean on a guy like that and use it. I've been learning his stuff since he was in Pittsburgh (in the early '90s) and we were at (the University of) Maryland."
LeBeau isn't going anywhere. He's just not in the front of the room all time.
"I'm still going to have input and ideas and be involved," LeBeau said. "But a lot of it will be Mark."
LeBeau has bequeathed Duffner the wide-ranging coordinator powers he had under Bruce Coslet and handed over the zone-blitz scheme he conceived in the mid-1980s.
Duffner runs the meetings during the week. He draws up the game plan. He calls the game on Sunday.
"Sure, it was hard. It's something I've done all my life," said LeBeau of giving up the previous 27 years spent scheming in the defensive room.
"But I always wanted to be the head coach and I always believed the head coach must delegate responsibility and if that means giving up what I did on defense, fine."
Still, LeBeau's presence is large when it comes to this scheme.
As cornerback Artrell Hawkins said, "This was Dick's scheme when he came in, it is now, and it probably will be here when he's gone."
In his first minicamp and veteran voluntary camps as defensive coordinator, Duffner, after a winter of consultation with LeBeau, has focused on technique and fundamentals.
"We're doing pretty much the same things, we're just trying to take out the chaos and take out the mistakes with guys moving around," said safety Darryl Williams.
"What they're trying to do is water it down a little bit. Have everybody in position and not thinking all the time. Just play football."
LeBeau and Duffner have agreed less is more. Spikes says Duffner is stressing to the defense what he stresses to the linebackers:
Alignment. Adjustment. Attitude.
"It's simplifying the game plan," Hawkins said. "Letting your athletic ability take over. There won't be that hesitation that compromises your athletic ability and ability to make plays, but at the same time still get good pressure. And we're not giving up our aggressiveness. I think we'll have the same aggressiveness, we'll just be taking out some of the complication."
Of course, Duffner won't tell you exactly what that means. He says, "Let the other teams find out watching film."
But it's clear Duffner, 47, is as popular with the rest of the defense as he is with his linebackers. Most of the starters have been at most of the voluntary workouts. Spikes says Duffner never a wallflower is even more vocal now. His Type A approach can be summarized in the drill in which all 11 defenders sprint 30 to 40 yards to touch the ball carrier in the end zone.
"It's a new drill, but it's kind of old, if you know what I mean," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons.
Which is how reserve linebacker Adrian Ross describes the re-tooled defense.
"It's new, but it's not new," Ross said. "The thing we're focusing on now is everybody knowing exactly what they're doing. The bottom line is making sure they know what they have to do. If that's less, so be it. They're trying to get less thinking and more reacting."