Dick LeBeau is a member of NFL royalty, a stalwart and consistent fixture who hasn’t been out of the league since being drafted as a CB in 1957. During his tenure LeBeau has revolutionised the game on defense and orchestrated some of the greatest game plans of all time.
LeBeau is most well known as the creator and chief-advocate of the “Zone Blitz”, a strategy which proved effective for the Tennessee Titans in flustering Alex Smith and slowing down the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wildcard round. Historically the best way to slow down Tom Brady and co. has been pressure up the gut but in this article we will look at ways that Dick LeBeau can hope to orchestrate a perfect game plan against an old nemesis from his Pittsburgh days.
Disguise blitz packages and bring pressure early
The Miami Dolphins laid down a blue print in week 14 with their victory over the New England Patriots. On the play below New England are in 12 personnel with two tight ends lined up to right. The play call is a slow developing RB screen out of play action. Tom Brady under centre will go play action before dumping off a screen pass to back James White (yellow) who should have WR Chris Hogan (purple) and uncovering guards Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney (yellow) in space.
The problem for New England is Miami is showing heavy blitz from the right side and are hoping to block long enough to allow the screen to develop left. Brady identifies Kiko Alonso (no.47) as MIKE and only account for safety TJ McDonald in blitz pick up (no.22) not Lawrence Timmons (no.94 – circled). Timmons and McDonald are both playing man coverage against the tight ends but Timmons is a “green-dog blitzer” something Dolphins DC Matt Burke utilized a lot in this game.
Once Timmons’ responsibility stays into block, he explodes off the edge and causes Brady to throw the ball into the dirt. This leaves New England in a hole as they now face 3rd & 10 where Miami’s pass rushers can pick back their ears.
LeBeau is a master in disguising blitzes and keeping offensive linemen and quarterbacks on their toes. The man who championed the zone blitz and who’s name is synonymous with it will likely look to break tendencies and give Tom Brady exotic looks Saturday.
While Brady has certainly seen everything, LeBeau could look to bring pressure from Brady’s right side. The threat of elite interior linemen Jurrell Casey and OLB Brian Orakpo who line up on the blindside will likely cause protections to be shifted their way. OLB Derrick Morgan and ILB Avery Williamson will be charged with bringing the heat and attempting to stall the Patriots passing attack. Tom Brady was PFF’s No.1 ranked QB in 2017, his ranking when blitzed dropped dramatically to 21st – pressure and often is the best way to slow down the Patriots in New England.
Play press on the outside and disrupt the receivers release and the timing component of the offense
Another nugget from that week 14 Dolphins game, Miami was able to harass New England’s smaller receivers on the outside by being physical and aggressive at the line of scrimmage. Miami benefited from not having to face Gronk – a unique challenge especially given Tennessee’s starting safeties are only 5’9″ (1.80m).
Tennessee have a small defensive backfield with nearly all of their DBs listed at 5’9″ (1.80m). The Titans do, however, have quick corners who could play at the line and be able to keep up with receivers stride-for-stride down field if they are unable to successfully jam on the line of scrimmage. Brady hates pressure and the offense relies on him reading the field and getting the ball out quickly. By jamming receivers at the line, not only are routes disrupted – impacting the timing element of the Patriots offense – but Brady is also forced to hold the ball for longer, thus allowing any blitzes or pass rushers an extra second to get home.
The Patriots have routinely had the Pittsburgh Steelers number and it comes from Tom Brady carving up and finding the soft spot in Pittsburgh’s zone defense. Aware of this fact Pittsburgh played more man coverage in their most recent encounter where the Steelers should have won had Ben Roethlisberger not made an errant throw right at the end.
Double cover Rob Gronkowski
Trying to stop Rob Gronkowski is the largest headache for any defensive coordinator in the NFL. While Dick LeBeau might be tempted to dial up some zone blitzes, what happens if Brady counters it with a quick hitter into the flats or up the seam to Gronk? Will LeBeau risk having a dropping defensive linemen cover the largest mismatch in football?
The Buffalo Bills took an interesting approach to slowing down Gronk under Rex Ryan which proved surprising effective. The Bills made a consistent effort to jam Gronk at the line of scrimmage while providing cover over top. The linebacker in press coverage acted like a special teams player as he made no attempt to follow Gronk other than smacking him off the line of scrimmage. This could prove problematic as the extra attention draws defenders away from covering New England’s stable of backs who thrive catching the ball out of the backfield.
While Dick LeBeau can only control what his defense does, if the Titans are able to score early and sustain drives on offense that would make it easier to implement his game plan. If Marcus Mariota is able to move the chains and Derrick Henry can get going like he did against Kansas City, this should give the Titans defense plenty of time to rest and recover for the next series against Brady. If Tennessee scores early or is able to put up points, this would put the ball more in Brady’s hands thus allowing the Titans edge rushers to pin back their ears and allow their strong interior D-Line to stunt and attack gaps.
Alternatively, if the Titans get in a hole early and are unable to move the chains, Dick LeBeau could be sending out lambs to slaughter as a tired defense would be hit with the full force of Josh McDaniels’ playbook. He will likely be looking to impress executives around the league as he’s rumored to be exiting after the season. Dick LeBeau has seen it all, as has Tom Brady, the match up Saturday evening will be yet another in a rivalry which started back in 2004. Look away now Titans fans – Brady leads the series 6-2.
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