Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been in the NFL for a long time. He is in the NFL Hall of Fame for his play as cornerback for the Detroit Lions from 1959-1972 as he racked up 62 interceptions, the third most in NFL history at the time of his retirement.
The very next year in 1973, LeBeau started his career as a coach, working with the Philadelphia Eagles special teams from 1973-75, before taking over the Green Bay Packers defensive backs from 1976-79. From 1980-2014, LeBeau coached the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers in alternating stints as the defensive backs coach, defensive coordinator, and even head coach, with a one-year hiatus as the Buffalo Bills assistant head coach in 2003.
But the Steelers decided to part ways with LeBeau after the 2014 season and the 80-year-old coach has spent the past three seasons with the Tennessee Titans.
LeBeau will make his way to the Hall of Fame for a second time for his contributions as a coach, with his creation of the zone blitz in the late 1980s and early 1990s changing the way defense was played. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has plenty of respect for LeBeau and his contributions to the history of the league.
“Dick’s a great defensive coach,” Belichick said. “He’s a great coach, was a great player. He’s been a tremendous asset and has made so many contributions to the game of professional football in the National Football League. There are few coaches that I think you could put above him in terms of the amount of what he’s accomplished and how much respect I have for him, how much respect all of us in the league have for him and what he’s done.
“He’s had a tremendous career. He’s made this game a better game and he’s done a lot for the coaching profession. He certainly revolutionized the game with his zone-blitz philosophy. That’s certainly stood the test of time, but Dick’s defense is Dick’s defense. It’s not anybody else’s defense.”
What is at the center of LeBeau’s defense? Great run defense on early downs (the Titans improved from ranking 24th in run defense DVOA in 2015 to 10th in 2016 and 7th in 2017) to set up opportunities for blitzing the quarterback to throw off the rhythm of the offense and force mistakes on long distance situations, while avoiding giving up big plays and mistakes of their own.
LeBeau’s defense hasn’t changed and that is both a blessing and a curse for the Titans.
“This is typical of one of [LeBeau’s] defenses, not in just the scheme but how they play, how hard they play, the different things you’re going to have to prepare and be ready for on Saturday night,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “And then there’s always going to be some game plan element to his approach, to our game, that we’re going to probably need to adjust to during the course of the night.”
In other words, the Patriots have seen LeBeau’s defense before and while it’s a great defense that works against a lot of teams, New England knows how to attack it.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots have faced LeBeau’s defense 17 times over the course of the years, with a 6-5 record from 2000-11, before the Patriots went on their current 6-game winning streak. Tom Brady is 10-1 in his past eleven games against a LeBeau defense, producing an average of 32.7 points per game.
There are a few key weaknesses to the LeBeau defense that rears its head in every game against New England.
- The Titans zone blitz means that a blitzing player will leave a zone wide open. The Patriots love to take advantage of this by having a receiver sit in that vacated zone, completely uncovered. The linebackers are often the blitzers, which leaves the seam wide open for tight ends. This is why Rob Gronkowski has 363 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns in four games against LeBeau.
- If you include the Steelers games without LeBeau (Pittsburgh still uses LeBeau’s defense), then Gronkowski has 718 yards and 9 touchdowns in 7 games against a LeBeau defense.
- Running backs have field days as receivers because the Patriots flood each zone with multiple options to cover. A receiver will run through a zone to draw the attention of the defender, and then the running back will enter the zone without a defender available to cover him for an easy gain.
- Alternatively, the defender could decide to cover the running back, which would leave the safety responsible for covering the receiver. New England also likes to run combo routes deep down the field with the safety covering the inside receiver, which leaves a player wide open deep down the sideline. This hasn’t been an issue for the Titans in 2017, but Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola have had success against LeBeau in the past, while Chris Hogan and Brandin Cooks produced on the outside against the Steelers.
All of this being said, the Titans defense has been pretty sound in 2017. They’ve allowed just 40 plays of 20+ yards, the lowest total in the NFL regular season. They allowed the 8th-least yards per play, rank 4th in yards per rush, and finished 8th and 10th in third down and red zone defense, respectively.
And if the Titans decide to throw in some man coverage, just like what the Steelers did in week 15 against the Patriots, then you can throw this whole article out the window.
But LeBeau rarely changes how he draws up his defense. The Titans force teams to lead long, extended drives without the benefit of a run game, which is a strategy that works against most teams.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they’re perfectly constructed to take advantage of all of the weaknesses in LeBeau’s defense.