GREEN BAY — Dom Capers can still remember the day Dick LeBeau first came to Pittsburgh to interview with the Steelers for an assistant-coaching position in 1992.
Capers, the Steelers’ new defensive coordinator, and first-year head coach Bill Cowher were looking for a defensive backs coach as they constructed their staff after Chuck Noll’s retirement.
LeBeau, coming off a 12-year stint in Cincinnati, had ample experience but felt the odds of landing the job might not be in his favor.
“Dick’s comment to me then was, ‘There’s not a lot of guys looking for a 56-year-old secondary coach,’” said Capers with a laugh on Thursday.
LeBeau landed the job, and he and Capers went to work on developing the zone-blitz defense that soon sent shockwaves through the NFL and propelled Pittsburgh to Super Bowl XXX three years later.
As it turned out, LeBeau was only at the midway point of an NFL coaching career when he was hired by the Steelers. Now 79 years old, LeBeau is in the midst of his 57th consecutive season in the NFL as either a player or coach.
The two veteran coaches will match wits again this Sunday when the Packers and Tennessee Titans square off at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, the first time the two coordinators have seen each other since the Packers battled the Steelers in December 2013.
Together, LeBeau and Capers have 73 combined years of NFL coaching experience between them, coordinated three Super Bowl-winning defenses and recorded hundreds of sacks with their unpredictable, pressure-packed scheme.
“Dick makes me feel young,” said Capers, 66. “I consider him a close, personal friend. It’s pretty amazing what he’s done when you look at his career and how long he’s been in the league. We’ve gone against each other quite a few times.”
Safeties coach Darren Perry has the unique experience of playing and coaching with both LeBeau and Capers. He played his first five NFL seasons in “Blitz-burgh” with Capers coordinating the defense from 1992-94 before LeBeau took over in 1995, after Capers was hired as the Panthers’ first head coach.
As a coach, Perry won a Super Bowl with LeBeau in Pittsburgh in 2005 and then with Capers in 2010 when the Packers beat the Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV.
Early in his career, Perry joked that he was too “young” to fully appreciate how innovative the zone-blitz scheme was with linebackers and defensive backs blitzing on any given down.
As time went on, he realized how special the defensive vision of Capers and LeBeau truly was.
“Two different people. Great football minds,” Perry said. “I guess Dick is probably more qualitative and Dom is more quantitative, if that makes any sense in terms of dealing with numbers. Dom loves his numbers and he loves his stats. Dick is probably going to look at things at face value and make decisions based off more his eyes and what he sees.”
Cowher wasn’t totally sold on the zone blitz at first, according to Perry, but everyone jumped on board after seeing how effective it was when sprinkled in during that first season.
Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy was an offensive assistant in Kansas City when the Steelers’ defense was growing in prominence and recalls how much it tested an offense.
McCarthy and the Chiefs actually faced the Steelers in the 1993 playoffs. Joe Montana was sacked four times in the game but helped lead Kansas City to a 27-24 overtime victory.
“Really the pressure schematically was probably the toughest thing to deal with in that era of football, clearly,” McCarthy said, adding that quarterbacks and receivers had to connect faster on hot reads and route adjustments.
“It would break rules of how you handle pressure from a protection standpoint. It would break rules that existed prior to that. It definitely was the new and successful pressure packages, particularly in the early ’90s.”
More than 20 years later, the zone-blitz defense has withstood the test of time. While the version Capers and LeBeau deploy today is different than in 1993, the fundamental concepts remain the same.
Since coming to Green Bay in 2009, Capers’ defenses rank near the top of the league in sacks (fourth), interceptions (first) and fewest points allowed (seventh).
Each offseason, Capers reassesses his scheme and tries to study league-wide trends. Some things stick and some go by the wayside, but it’s important to stay on the cutting edge.
“The game changes every year. The game has changed a bunch since I first came here to Green Bay,” Capers said. “To me, one of the keys is taking what you have and trying to feature the things that you feel you can do well, and not trying to do too much based off your team – the youth of your team, how many young guys you’re playing.”
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt joked earlier this week that he couldn’t envision himself coaching at 79 years old, but he appreciates how much Capers’ system has evolved over time.
Now in his 31st NFL season, Capers still feels as motivated and energetic as ever with the Packers currently ranked seventh in total yards, second in run defense and tied for ninth in sacks.
Meanwhile, LeBeau’s Titans are tied for fifth with 23 sacks this season. All those years after that conversation in 1992, Capers and LeBeau show no signs of stopping.
“Honestly I enjoy the challenge, week-in and week-out. I don’t know how you replace that,” Capers said. “It’s a demanding business. You’re going to be up at four in the morning, you get yourself conditioned to not a lot of sleep, but I’m not sure what replaces that challenge.
“It’s like here’s Dick, 78, 79, what’s the challenge? Well, he still enjoys it. He played for 14 years and he’s been in the league (coaching) for 40-some years. I enjoy it. I do. I enjoy the relationship with the players, the competitive nature of it to where things change so much and you have to get a plan ready week-in and week-out.”