January 03, 2009

Steelers revere LeBeau, the coach they call Dad

PITTSBURGH — NFL players make headlines for cursing a coach. Criticizing a coach. Calling out a coach. Demanding that a coach be fired.

Loving a coach? Now that’s a new one—except in Pittsburgh, where Steelers players have long talked of their respect, admiration and, yes, love for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Here’s another one: Some of them call the former star defensive back Dad.

“We love coach LeBeau,” Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu said. “I don’t think there’s anything we wouldn’t do for him.”

During a time when Chad Ocho Cinco sits out a game for getting into a dispute with a coach, and Terrell Owens makes a career out of coach-baiting, LeBeau’s relationship with his players is more like that represented in the hero-worshipping Chip Hilton and John R. Tunis football novels of a half-century ago.

And this seems so schmaltzy, it’s hard to believe it occurs in the current-day NFL. One of his players’ favorite days every season comes when LeBeau recites from memory “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” as he did last week.

His players are so devoted to LeBeau, they purchased $300 throwback LeBeau jerseys to wear to the Hall of Fame game in Canton last year to lobby voters for his enshrinement.

“I just have a lot of respect for the man,” defensive end Aaron Smith said. “What he’s done as a player and what he’s done as a coach speaks volumes for him, the way he conducts himself and carries himself and treats people.”

The way he coaches, too.

At age 71, and in a remarkable 50th NFL season—14 as a standout defensive back and 36 as a coach—LeBeau is enjoying one of his most satisfying seasons.

The Steelers’ defense is one of the NFL’s most dominant in years, allowing the fewest yards for the second successive season, plus the fewest yards passing and least number of points. The Steelers missed by fewer than 60 yards rushing of becoming the first defense since the 1970 NFL merger to lead the league in the top four defensive categories.

LeBeau is best known for popularizing the zone blitzes that swept the NFL when he was coaching Pittsburgh’s Blitzburgh defense during the 1990s. But playing for the former Bengals head coach requires much more than relying on an innovative scheme.

LeBeau’s defenses are known for maximizing talent, being well-disciplined and fundamentally sound. Some plays are risky, but each has a safety valve, too. As players such as Greg Lloyd, James Farrior, James Harrison, Joey Porter, Casey Hampton, Smith and Polamalu have proven, one can make a career out of being a LeBeau disciple.

As Harrison set the Steelers’ single-season sack record of 16 while winning a second team MVP award in as many seasons, he credited LeBeau for turning a player who wasn’t drafted out of Kent State into a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker.

“Everything I do is because of him,” Harrison said. “If he doesn’t call that defense that puts me in a position to make plays, I wouldn’t be talking to you now.”

To further understand LeBeau’s ability to communicate, motivate and innovate, consider this. It has been 15 years since LeBeau’s zone blitzes first became popular, a lifetime in a sport where today’s gimmick fast becomes yesterday’s news, yet his defenses remain as fresh and as confusing as they did then.

The Steelers played one of the NFL’s toughest schedules, yet they allowed only one team to gain 300 yards, held half of their 16 opponents to 10 points or below, and didn’t permit a passer to throw for 300 yards or a running back to gain 100 yards.

Asked why this defense is so good, safety Ryan Clark said, “Coach LeBeau’s calls. I think he’s really been smart. He calls a defense that always allows someone to be over the top in some capacity.”

And who says a coach can’t adapt as he gets older?

LeBeau knew the Steelers needed to generate a better pass rush after getting only 36 sacks last season. So he tweaked his defense to get more pressure from the front three and linebackers Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers finished second in the league with 51 sacks, four off the club record.

“I think in the earlier days sometimes we would just completely dominate the game because people were not familiar with it (the zone blitz),” said LeBeau, who has been an assistant with five teams during his extended career. “I don’t think those situations evolve too often any more, but you can’t put on a video—be it college, high school or professional—and not see the zone blitz being evoked. It’s sound and it’s a safe way to pressure … it has evolved, but we’re still an attack defense.”

Pittsburgh has been home to some of the NFL’s best defenses—remember the Steel Curtain? Mean Joe Greene? Jack Lambert?—and statistically, this defense ranks with them.

“They look a lot like Baltimore (in 2000) when they killed everybody and won the Super Bowl,” Cowboys coach Wade Phillips said.

Much like predecessor Bill Cowher, who twice hired LeBeau to run his defense, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is a former NFL defensive coordinator who spends considerable time working on defense. Yet his players say Tomlin allows LeBeau more freedom to run the show than Cowher did.

“Dick is the guy,” Tomlin said. “But Dick will tell you, those calls are great because they’re being executed at a high level, guys like James Harrison and Co. making plays. They make the calls happen.”

LeBeau hasn’t said yet if he will return next season at age 72, but maybe he doesn’t need to. His players believe there are only two things left for them to accomplish to bring the proper credit to LeBeau:

1) Win the Super Bowl for the second time in four seasons. The Steelers have this weekend off before playing a divisional playoff game Jan. 11. 2) Gain Hall of Fame recognition for a man who ranked fourth in the NFL record book with 62 interceptions when he retired in 1972, and remains in the top eight, and has been one of the sport’s defensive innovators.

“I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame,” Smith said.

His loyal players lined up to hug him during an on-field ceremony Nov. 20 to honor LeBeau for his 50 seasons. Some had tears in their eyes, as did LeBeau.

“Anybody would love coaching these guys,” LeBeau said.

It’s obvious the feeling is mutual.

No comments: