DALLAS -- When Kevin Greene joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as a linebacker in 1993, he often wondered what went on at the evening meetings where head coach Bill Cowher plotted defensive strategy with Dom Capers, his defensive coordinator, secondary coach Dick LeBeau and linebackers coach Marvin Lewis.
"I would have loved to have been in there,'' says Greene, whose 160 sacks in 15 seasons are third on the NFL's career sack list and who got into coaching last season as Green Bay's linebackers coach. "All that brainstorming, all that brainpower. All those defensive schemes. 'If we blitz, who do we put here? Who do we put there?' Just great defensive minds.''
Some of the products of those sessions nearly two decades ago will be on display at Cowboys Stadium Sunday when the Packers play the Steelers in the Super Bowl. Capers is Green Bay's defensive coordinator, LeBeau holds that job for the Steelers and the aggressive 3-4 defenses they play are the products of those evening sessions and many others.
Capers and LeBeau, both "small-town Ohio boys'' (as Capers puts it) have been friends for years and were roommates in training camp when they coached together with Pittsburgh.
Both have been NFL head coaches -- Capers got expansion Carolina to the NFC title game in his second season and later coached Houston; LeBeau had three seasons with Cincinnati, where Lewis coaches now. But LeBeau and Capers are known chiefly for their defensive innovations and their teams finished this season 1-2 in points allowed -- Pittsburgh gave up 232 and Green Bay 240.
In fact, there's a minor very "inside football'' debate about which one of them invented the "zone blitz,'' the system in which down linemen drop into pass coverage while linebackers of defensive backs are blitzing. It worked for a Green Bay touchdown in the NFC championship game when 335-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji, in a spot normally occupied by a linebacker, picked off a pass by Caleb Hanie and returned it 18 yards for what turned out to be the game-deciding points in a 21-14 win.
The 73-year-old LeBeau, who was elected last year to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his career as a cornerback with Detroit, is generally credited these days as the system's "inventor,'' having used it in the mid-1980s when he was defensive coordinator in Cincinnati. But when Capers was named Carolina's first head coach in 1995 after his defense helped the Steelers get to the Super Bowl, a lot of the publicly at the time credited him with being "the father of the zone blitz.''
Both Capers and LeBeau chuckle at the thought of taking or giving credit.
"Everything in football, all the systems, are really a product of evolution,'' Capers said this week. "If I'm giving credit, I'll say that Dick was the first one to do it when he was in Cincinnati. We probably polished it in Pittsburgh -- Bill and Marvin and I added some elements to what Dick brought.''
LeBeau's version: "I did a few things with the Bengals that had linemen dropping. Dom pulled some things together in Pittsburgh and then we all added a few more -- Marvin Lewis and Bill Cowher had things that worked."
In fact, there were others doing some of the same things in those days from 3-4 defenses -- Cincinnati was playing a 4-3 when LeBeau first instituted the system. The New York Giants, one of the few teams playing a 3-4 in the '80s, sometimes dropped defensive end George Martin into coverage and almost always (why wouldn't they?) rushing Lawrence Taylor from his outside linebacker spot. The names involved there also are among the game's historic defensive innovators -- Bill Parcells was the head coach, Bill Belichick the defensive coordinator and Romeo Crennel the defensive line coach.
Over the last 20 years -- since Capers and LeBeau and Cowher and Lewis were having their nighttime sessions -- the Steelers are the team best known for that aggressive 3-4. Lewis said this week that he believes it's the continuity at outside linebacker, where Pittsburgh has always stationed its best pass rushers. Lewis noted a direct line of outstanding pass rushers on each side that goes back to that era -- Greene, Jason Gildon, Clark Haggans and LaMarr Woodley, the current incumbent on one side; Greg Lloyd, Carlos Emmons, Joey Porter and James Harrison on the other.
Green Bay doesn't have that history or those players because the Packers were a conventional 4-3 team when Capers got there last season. He gradually began to switch to a 3-4, adapting his personnel to it. The keys were two first-round draft choices from 2009. One is Raji, the ninth overall pick, who began his career as a 4-3 tackle and then a 3-4 end, then moved this year to the nose after an injury-plagued learning rookie season. The other is Clay Matthews, who fit the outside pass-rushing role perfectly and demonstrated that from the start -- he had ten sacks from that hybrid position as a rookie, increasing it to 13 1/2 this year when he finished two votes behind Steelers' safety Troy Polamalu in the balloting for defensive player of the year.
That Greene is Matthews' coach adds just another bit of symmetry to the game.
For not only does he play a lot like Greene, with passion and a motor that's constantly running, but the two look alike, although Matthews' long blond hair is usually tied into a ponytail while Greene as a player sported the Prince Valiant look. Now, at 48, it's shorn back to above the shoulder, very long for a coach, short in comparison to his playing days.
OK. Capers, LeBeau, Greene are common denominators in the Super Bowl.
So is hair.
Polamalu, who was once dragged down by his ponytail after an interception, will be a major component in LeBeau's blitzing schemes. After it was announced he had edged out Matthews for the defensive player award, he was asked about his fellow Southern California alum's ponytail.
"Mine is longer,'' he replied. "Definitely longer.''
Longer ponytail wins on Sunday?
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