Thursday, November 11, 1999

Bengals defense works - elsewhere

LeBeau refuses to blame talent

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In this cruelest of Bengals' seasons, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau sees his ideas flourishing at the top of the NFL statistics while his own unit in Cincinnati tries to stave off infamy in the league's record and fact book.

        Three of the NFL's top four defenses are nearly mirror images of LeBeau's zone blitz playbook, with No.1 Jacksonville headed by defensive coordinator Dom Capers, LeBeau's old boss with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

        But LeBeau's Bengals have fallen from 17th to 24th the last two weeks after brutal efforts against the run and are on pace to give up the third-most points in NFL history with 488.

        Still, there are plenty of LeBeau supporters who say he doesn't have the right players in the secondary because of injuries and the failure to land a veteran cornerback in free agency; that they are too young and raw to pull off this scheme.

        “You fire these defensive coaches and they'll find work immediately,” said ESPN reporter Solomon Wilcots, who played for LeBeau in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. “Dom Capers is going to become a head coach again and his first hire will be LeBeau as his defensive coordinator. ... The players in this scheme can't cover the way the scheme is meant to cover.”

        Wilcots points to former Steeler safeties in Jacksonville (Carnell Lake) and Baltimore (Rod Woodson) counseling young cornerbacks drafted in the first round. The Bengals don't have either type of player.

        LeBeau won't buy it. He insists his players are good enough and won't mention the injuries so devastating that waiver wire pick ups started at cornerback last week and could do so again Sunday against the Titans.

        “They've worked hard, they've kept their focus,” LeBeau said. “We're emphasizing reversing the trend against the run because until the last two weeks we kept it in check and were up to 17th. We're still giving up (only 3.9 yards) against the rush, but we've got to get back to where we were.”

        LeBeau's zone-blitz is predicated on getting pressure on the quarterback from all over the field, meaning cornerbacks must cover well enough to make the passer hold the ball. Often, that means they have to go one-on-one.

        LeBeau said the Bengals have played more zone than usual because of the depleted secondary, but he won't use it as an excuse. The scheme works.

        “I don't think the NFL has caught up to it yet,” said former Bengals coach Sam Wyche, a CBS-TV analyst. “Offenses are playing stupid against it. They're lining up five wide receivers and getting quarterbacks pounded.”

        The stats say the zone blitz is still effective. Baltimore's second-ranked defense is coordinated by Marvin Lewis, LeBeau's former linebackers coach with Pittsburgh. Capers and Lewis work with four big defensive linemen while the Bengals use a three-man line as a base, but have been mostly using a four-man line this year when they put an outside linebacker on the end.

        The fourth-ranked Steelers are a little different than they were in the days of Capers and LeBeau, but head coach Bill Cowher is still around making sure the concept is the same. Buffalo, ranked ninth, also runs a variation.

        “It's a pressure defense and when you get that type of pressure up there, you don't have to cover for more than three or four seconds,” said Bengals safety Myron Bell, who started for LeBeau in Super Bowl XXX with the Steelers. “Even if the corner has good coverage and the pressure doesn't get there in that amount of time, the fire zones break down.

        “The reason it's a great scheme is because offenses can't stop guys beating guys one-on-one,” Bell said. “We have to beat more guys and we have to cover better in the secondary.”


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