DALLAS — For the first time since 1982, when the Redskins and Dolphins met in Super Bowl XVII, the top two scoring defenses in the league will meet in an epic battle for the Lombardi Trophy this Sunday. In fact, it will mark only the fourth time in Super Bowl history that the league's top two scoring defenses will clash — Super Bowl IV and Super Bowl VIII were the others.
It's no coincidence that two of the greatest defensive minds in the game, the Steelers' Dick LeBeau and Packers' Dom Capers, are the masterminds behind the operations. Capers was the Steelers' defensive coordinator between 1992-94 who worked around the clock with then secondary coach LeBeau sculpting a complex 3-4 scheme that according to LeBeau, was accompanied by a 900-page playbook during their time in Pittsburgh. LeBeau, a 2009 Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee as a cornerback, is a two-time Super Bowl champion as an assistant coach; Capers will make his first appearance on the NFL's biggest stage Sunday after 25 years of coaching in the league.
And just as LeBeau worked under Capers in Pittsburgh, both coordinators have extremely talented staffs with coaches who one day — for some, that day could come very soon — could be considered the elite defensive minds in the league. Let's take a look at a few of the defensive coaches on each staff who have been fortunate enough to learn from two of the very best.
Packers defensive line Coach Mike Trgovac
In talking to folks who are at Packers practice every day, Trgovac, who is in his second assignment with the Packers — he coached the defensive line from 1999-2002 — is commended for his teaching skills. The former Panthers defensive coordinator is very passionate in what he does, and the players really respond to his clinic-like practices and precise attention to details. Trgovac has done a tremendous job plugging in lesser-known players this season, including Jarius Wynn, Howard Green and C.J Wilson, without much drop-off in production while his star pupils, including Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett, dealt with injuries.
Trgovac has been instrumental in the ascent of NT B.J. Raji, who has become a key cog in the middle of the Packers' stout defense in only his second season. Raji is one of the team's best pass rushers, but he proved in the NFC title game that his skill set is hardly limited to getting upfield. Raji intercepted Bears third-string QB Caleb Hanie in the fourth quarter, returning the pick for the game-winning score. "I'm constantly on him (Raji)," Trgovac said. " 'Hey, listen, I know you're getting a lot of attention and all that goes along with it. You intercepted a pass. Luckily, you're a good enough athlete to do it, but just remember one thing, you're a grunt, you're a little fat kid from Jersey. You need to remember what makes this defense go. You need to take up the blockers, you need to make sure you're in your gaps.' "
That's exactly the type of tough love that has allowed Trgovac to get the most out of his players this season, prompting the league to take notice — Trgovac was highly coveted for the Broncos' defensive coordinator position, but the club did not want to wait until after the postseason to fill the role.
Packers safeties coach Darren Perry
In sitting down with Perry, the outgoing coach who spent four seasons with the Steelers before heading to Oakland and eventually making his way to Green Bay, there was no shortage of amazing stories. Not only did Perry recount his time working with a young and undisciplined Troy Polamalu, but he talked of his time with LeBeau, and joked about seeing an old NFL Films clip of LeBeau getting trucked by fellow Hall of Famer, RB Jim Brown. It is very clear that both LeBeau and Capers have had an enormous impact on Perry's coaching philosophy, and when the conversation turned to Perry's role with the Packers, it was all business. Perry preached the importance of his players asking questions while working in such a complex scheme, explaining that if the players know where they're supposed to be and handle their responsibilities in the defense, they would be successful.
To emphasize the importance of making himself accessible to his players, Perry used a LeBeauism: "It's not what you don't know, it's what you think you know that isn't so."
Polamalu further illustrated Perry's role in working with his guys, praising the coach for the work he did with Polamalu during their time together, saying, "He was like a father to me. We went through a lot together … he helped me get over that hurdle of confidence and learning the defense."
Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr.
Whitt Jr. is considered an up and comer in many league circles — and it's no surprise. At 32, he is one of the youngest coaches in the NFL, but the impact he has made on his young players is profound. Tramon Williams played at a Pro Bowl level this season; Sam Shields, an undrafted free agent who was just recently converted to cornerback, loomed extremely large in the NFC championship game victory, intercepting a pair of passes and adding a sack.
Whitt Jr. comes from a coaching family. His father, Joe Whitt Sr., was a longtime assistant at the University of Auburn, and his godfather, James Daniel, is the tight ends coach for the Steelers.
"I coach a lot like my dad — he is my role model," Whitt Jr. told PFW. "I try to be brutally honest, I try to be very detail-oriented and I got that from him." Whitt Jr. credits Daniel, whom he describes as "the only other man to whup him," for teaching him, as well. A Pat Dye guy, the coach discussed the difference between coaching in college and the pros. "In college, whatever you say they are going to do — they don't know football — but if I put something on that board that is wrong, Charles (Woodson) knows it and he will say, 'Really, coach?' So I can't put something on that board that is not sound."
Whitt Jr. has been open about having a learning disability, and says that it has helped shape him into the man he is today. "I had a teacher in the fifth grade who told me I would never be able to spell, I would never be able to do this and that — but look at me now."
Don't worry, coach, several NFL teams are.
Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell
In his 17th season in Pittsburgh, Mitchell is the longest-tenured coach on the staff. The 59-year-old, who was the first African-American to play football at the University of Alabama, commands respect from his players. Mitchell learned under legendary head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant, and he goes out of his way to let his players know that regularly.
"He has a notebook of things about Bryant; how he reacted to certain situations and how he dealt with certain situations," Steelers DT Chris Hoke said. "So I think he goes back to that every once in a while, you know, because Bryant was obviously very successful. He was a guy who Coach Mitch looked up to and really respected, so he wants to emulate him.
Mitchell expanded upon his admiration for Bryant: "The best thing that ever happened to me was having the opportunity to play and coach for Coach Bryant. And I say this: everything that I am, everything that I do with my coaching philosophy, I get from him. I learned it in Alabama."
From talking to a number of his players, it was overwhelmingly clear that Mitchell's coaching philosophy centers on paying attention to details, and the small things. They referred to him as an "old-school guy" and "very black and white," with the No. 1 emphasis being on sound technique. Mitchell's teaching is a big reason why the Steelers are one of the most dominant fronts in the league every year.
Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler
One of the biggest stories in Dallas this week has been the future of Butler, who is reportedly the Cardinals' No. 1 choice for defensive coordinator. While Butler was not interested in discussing his future past Sunday, he did reveal that, despite misconceptions going around, there was not a clause in his Steelers contract that would make him LeBeau's successor when the 73-year-old decides to retire.
What Butler, 52, was much more interested in sharing was the incredible bond he has formed with his players in his eight years on the job.
"The biggest thing with working with these guys is honesty more than anything else," he said. "I have a little bit of a hokey saying about the three T's — if over a period of time I tell you the truth, you will learn to trust me. And that's a two-way street. So we try and keep everything honest in terms of what's going on, on the field, and what might be going on in their lives — if they need some help in certain areas and things like that."
With arguably the best linebacking corps in the league, Butler says his players make his job easy. And they feel the same way, lauding Butler, who played linebacker for the Seahawks for 10 seasons, for how easy he is to relate to, and for making the job fun.
Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton
A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Horton's players swear there is not a coach in football who has his players better prepared.
"Coach Horton is very intelligent, he knows the defense inside and out … he is just like a natural-born coach," veteran CB Ike Taylor said. "What makes him so special is his ability to diagnose and dissect opponents; a lot of things that another player or coach wouldn't pick up on, only coach Ray would. Some people just have that gift — Troy (Polamalu) is just a gifted football player, Coach Ray is just a gifted coach.
During a discussion with the coach, who won a Super Bowl as a player with the Cowboys, and another two with the Steelers' organization, the two words that came up repeatedly were execution and accountability. Horton takes great pride in his players' ability to not just cover, but be great tacklers, saying they deserve some of the credit for Pittsburgh's superior run-stopping ability as the league's top-ranked run defense.
Horton made no secret about his desire to be a coordinator one day — the Cowboys reportedly were considering Horton for their vacancy but hired Rob Ryan before Horton had an opportunity to interview — but was very focused on the task at hand.
When asked about returning to Dallas, the site of his first Super Bowl triumph, Horton's eyes lit up: "Goosebumps," he said.