- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

After manhandling the NFL for much of the regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense took a cue from venerable defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau last weekend.

Showing resiliency reminiscent of LeBeau, who endured seven straight losing seasons between leaving Pittsburgh in 1997 and returning last January, the NFL’s top-ranked unit didn’t fold after giving up several big plays and 275 yards to the New York Jets in Saturday’s AFC divisional round.

By game’s end the Jets had no offensive touchdowns and two missed potential game-winning field goals. And Pittsburgh was headed to Sunday’s title match against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field.

“Our team never quits,” LeBeau said that night. “You saw that. I’m so proud of them all. There were a couple times when it looked pretty dark out there. But they kept coming up, making them kick it from a long way. You don’t always make the long kicks, especially this time of year.”

Doug Brien certainly didn’t, missing from 47 and 43 yards in the final two minutes to aid the Steelers’ fifth foray into the conference title game under coach Bill Cowher.

The defensive performance by no means harkened to the Steel Curtain days. But it served notice that Pittsburgh won’t wilt against the favored Patriots, even as many pundits point to running back Corey Dillon (who missed the regular-season meeting, a 34-20 Pittsburgh win) and predict a New England uprising.

“We worked hard from Day 1,” nose tackle Chris Hoke said. “It wasn’t a one-man thing. Everybody worked together as a family. That’s why we are where we are. Sometimes we gave up some yards, but when it really counted we stepped up.”

The work by LeBeau, 67, has validated his status as one of the game’s top defensive minds. More than a decade has passed since he unveiled the zone blitz, which is predicated on mixing up the positions blitzing and those dropping into coverage. The tactic was so successful that, like Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense, it now has been copied to the point of ubiquity.

The Steelers’ defense was dubbed “Blitzburgh” when LeBeau guided it in 1995 and ‘96, finishing both seasons ranked among the NFL’s top three units. LeBeau, a Steelers defensive backs coach, helped Cowher lead five straight teams (1992-96) to the playoffs, including the 1995 club that went to Super Bowl XXX.

But from 1997 to 2002 LeBeau was with the Cincinnati Bengals, who struggled throughout and recorded just 12 wins in 45 games when he was coach from 2000 to ‘02. He spent 2003 in Buffalo, where he served as assistant head coach to Gregg Williams on the 6-10 Bills. Then, when Tim Lewis was fired by the Steelers last winter, LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh and finally got back to winning.

“It’s good to get back in the playoffs, to be in big games,” he said with a grin. “It’s been a lot of fun, actually.”

The Steelers, too, were a long way from having fun in 2003, when they slid to 6-10. Veteran defensive players credit LeBeau with instilling a new mind-set from the moment minicamps opened in May.

“His whole attitude changed our style of play,” said linebacker James Farrior, who has blossomed into a Pro Bowl player this year. “We love it. We all believe in the system. We felt his energy from Day 1.”

Added defensive end Aaron Smith, who this season recorded eight sacks (an incredible stat for a 3-4 scheme): “It’s just his attitude. We’re going to go out and compete on every down. We’re going to fight. We’re going to come after you.”

With stars like Farrior, Smith and linebacker Joey Porter leading a heavyweight front seven and safety Troy Polamalu emerging from a patchwork secondary, Pittsburgh yielded 258.4 yards and 15.7 points a game this year, both NFL bests.

The performance was crucial as Cowher broke in a rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Although Roethlisberger has become a national darling by winning 15 straight games, in the regular season he threw for just 2,621 yards — less than 58 percent of the totals put up by luminaries Daunte Culpepper and Peyton Manning.

And as Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and struggled to a 57.8 rating last weekend, LeBeau’s group kept the Jets out of the end zone, and Pittsburgh’s magical season chugging along.

“That’s one thing our defense has talked about all year: ‘If they don’t score, we win,’” cornerback Willie Williams said.

Now the unit has another huge challenge. Dillon, a Bengals star/malcontent during the half-dozen seasons LeBeau spent in Cincinnati, rushed for 1,635 yards in 15 games this season. Dillon has solidified the one glaring question about last year’s Patriots, who won Super Bowl XXXVIII, and may have made this year’s club even better.

But with resiliency to spare and a revived mastermind orchestrating the attack, Pittsburgh’s defense believes it is up to the test.

“Coach LeBeau has done a great job of putting everybody in position to make plays,” Farrior said. “We all just believe we’re a good defense, and we believe in each other.”

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