Sunday, August 09, 2009

On The Ground: Frank Mineo on Dick LeBeau and the Steelers

I'm finally back from this weekend's softball tournament in Golden, B.C. It was a lot of fun, and our team won our division, placing fifth overall out of 16 teams in the process. Anyway, I should hopefully have some fresh content up tonight. Until then, here's the final part of my interview series for my unconventional thinking piece at The Good Point. Today's instalment features my full interview with Frank Mineo (drinkyourmilkshake) of the great Steelers' website, Behind The Steel Curtain. You can also check out my full interview with Minnesota Vikings blogger Brandon Peterson over at his excellent site, Vikings' Throne. Read on for Frank's thoughts on the Steelers, Dick LeBeau's defensive innovations, the zone blitz and the 3-4.

Andrew Bucholtz: Many have attributed much of Pittsburgh's success over the last couple of decades to Dick LeBeau's zone blitz scheme. How important do you think it has been to the Steelers?

Frank Mineo: Dick LeBeau's first season with the Pittsburgh Steelers was in 1992 which was also the year that Bill Cowher took over as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. With Mike Tomlin's decision to keep Dick LeBeau on staff, it has certainly kept a sense of continuity for the Steelers throughout the years. LeBeau’s knowledge and propensity for innovation took the Steelers defense within a few short years turned them into a dominant force and has kept the defense relevant and exceptional.

Even when LeBeau left the Steelers to become head coach of the Bengals, his schemes remained along with his coaching disciples and allowed the Steelers defense to remain one of the top units in the league. LeBeau is referred to as “Coach Dad” by his players and it’s clear that the respect they have for him is immense.

A.B.: Most innovations in the NFL seem to have a relatively short shelf life, but the zone blitz has remained effective for decades now. Why do you think this is?

F.M.: I think part of the reason why it has been able to sustain its relevance is because the zone blitz was less of an innovation and more of an improvement on the 3-4 defensive scheme that has been effective for many years. LeBeau designed the scheme to cut down on risks by disguising defenders to increase the efficiency of his blitzes without committing additional men and therefore creating pressure without exposing weaknesses. He has basically perfected the 3-4 defense, and perfection rarely goes out of style.

A.B.: There's been some discussion about the Steelers possibly utilizing a Wildcat formation at times this year with backup QB Dennis Dixon. What do you think of this idea? Can the Wildcat still work now that other teams are used to it, and do the Steelers have the personnel necessary for the scheme to succeed?.

F.M.: The Steelers started using something similar to the Wildcat around 1995 with Kordell Stewart, and they actually used a Wildcat formation in the Super Bowl (albeit with little success). I have no doubt that if Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians think the package will be effective, they will use the Wildcat or a similar variation.

Regarding Dennis Dixon, he will have to show he is capable of being the first backup to Ben Roethlisberger to gain a roster spot and be able to see the field on game days. In order to do so, he will have to have a very strong training camp and preseason to have any chance at winning the backup quarterback spot over veteran Charlie Batch. If Dixon does wind up as the second-string QB, I think the Steelers would be foolish to not develop a few packages to take advantage of Dixon’s athleticism.

I’m not sure if the Wildcat was a one year wonder or not, but Miami was really the only team in the NFL to use it consistently rather than just an occasional trick play. Some teams were able to expose weaknesses in the Wildcat offense near the end of the season, but with the Dolphins adding Pat White to the mix and brining back Ronnie Brown and the rest of the core group, I expect them to try and advance and improve on their success from last year. Only time will tell if the Wildcat and its spawns are here to stick around.

A.B.: The Steelers have also been famed for their 3-4 defence, which started as more of an unconventional idea. However, more and more teams seem to be switching to the 3-4 all the time. Will the Steelers' 3-4 still be effective when they have to compete with more teams for players that fit the system? Also, will opponents be able to handle the Steelers' 3-4 better from the experience of regularly playing other teams using a 3-4?

F.M.: I don’t think anyone can answer the first part of the question with any real certainty. The teams like the Ravens, Steelers, and Patriots have had their pick of the litter when it comes to finding the right players to fit their mold, partially because there were so few teams running the 3-4 scheme in the past. As more teams start to use the system, it is only natural to assume that teams will have a harder time finding the right players to continue their defensive dominance, but I do think there are a few caveats to that. Each team who use the 3-4 runs it with a little bit of a different style, and the personnel that each system requires is different from team to team. You also have to consider that the NFL is a copycat-type league and after a while a new system will come along and steal the buzz and excitement for the 3-4.

A.B.: How important do you think it is for NFL teams to try unconventional strategies, whether in player acquisition or in play design and selection?

F.M.: I don’t think teams need to rely on trick plays and cheap gimmicks to be successful, but it is extremely important to take risks and think outside the box. The Steelers are clearly a team who do that, and I think it would be foolish to ignore that as part of the reason for their sustained success over the years. As I brought up earlier, the Steelers used Wildcat type formations long before it was popular, go against the grain in terms of spending lots of money on high-priced free agents, and also trust their coaches like no other franchise over the past few decades. The teams who are successful run their teams how they want and stay away from following the trends of other teams.

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