Kragthorpe: Steelers' LeBeau knows defense
Tampa, Fla. » The fiercest opponent the Arizona Cardinals will face in Sunday's Super Bowl XLIII hardly looks intimidating. He's sitting in a basketball arena on the campus where the Pittsburgh Steelers are practicing this week, answering questions with his arms folded across his chest and his voice barely audible across the table.
In this setting, it is difficult to picture defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau as the inspirational, expressive character the Steelers talk about. You know, the guy who annually stands in front of the whole team and recites his own version of "The Night Before Christmas."
LeBeau directs the NFL's top defense of this decade and maybe one of the best in the league's history, a potential judgment that awaits the Steelers after they deal with Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and his receivers. Coaches like to say that everything already has been invented, but this guy actually is one of the innovators, having developed a modern defensive scheme: the "zone blitz."
LeBeau is 71 years old. With his hair barely turning gray, he could pass for 50 -- except that would spoil the story of someone who has played and coached in the NFL for that period of time. Fifty years in the league is just "a testimony to getting out of bed and going to work," he said.
So when the Steelers defensive players gather at the team's facility, LeBeau always greets them with, "Good morning, men. It's a great day to be alive."
And then they get to work. "We all consider him a father figure, we all love him to death and we all bleed for the man," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "If you get a good coach that the players love and respect, you're going to get the most out of your players."
Lineman Chris Hoke says the way players respond to LeBeau reminds him of the dynamics between players and LaVell Edwards, the coach Hoke and Keisel played for at BYU. Beyond that, LeBeau is a defensive football genius. "He can watch an offense and he knows exactly where the weakness is, how to attack it," Hoke said.
That's what five decades in the league can do for you. LeBeau was a star defensive back for the Detroit Lions for 14 seasons. In his less modest moments, he tells his players, "It's better to be a used-to-be than a never-was." He's also known to show them old films of himself to demonstrate techniques.
Except for a brief, unsuccessful stint as Cincinnati's head coach, LeBeau's 36 years of NFL coaching have been devoted to defense.
The zone blitz -- having linemen drop into intermediate pass coverage, while linebackers rush the quarterback -- stemmed from LeBeau's frustration in dealing with quick-passing offenses. "We were just looking for ways to get pressure without exposing our defensive backs to have to cover the whole field all the time," he said.
The Steelers allowed only 237 yards a game during the regular season and are inspiring comparisons to the "Steel Curtain" defenses of the 1970s, not that LeBeau is playing along.
"I don't know if any defense will ever do what they did," he said. "I remember one stretch of games where it wasn't a matter of whether the opponent was going to score, it was whether they were going to get a first down. They were one in a billion."
This defense, and its coordinator, are pretty rare themselves.