- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

TAMPA, Fla. | Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top-ranked defense seem to have two jobs this week leading into Super Bowl XLIII against the Arizona Cardinals.

Primary objective: Win a second championship in four years.

Secondary objective: Politic for coordinator Dick LeBeau’s induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Beloved by his players, admired by his opponents and revered by his former co-workers, the 71-year-old is the brains behind the NFL’s top-ranked defense.

Among the 247 Hall of Fame members, none has been recognized exclusively for his work as an assistant coach. The Steelers think that should change regardless of how they fare against the Cardinals.

“We play for our fans, we play for the organization and you play for yourself,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “But on this defense, ask anybody - we play for Coach LeBeau.”

“He’s one of the guys who created the 3-4 defense, so you have to call him a genius,” linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.

Added defensive tackle Casey Hampton: “It’s not even a question. He should have been in there as a player a long time ago and definitely as a coach as well. They’ve been doing him wrong for a long time, but hopefully he’ll make it soon.”

It hasn’t happened yet in part because LeBeau posted a 12-33 mark as a head coach with Cincinnati from 2000 to 2002 and some defensive backs faced long waits before getting the call (his 62 career interceptions are tied for ninth all time). And it won’t happen Saturday when the 2009 class is announced because he’s not a finalist.

LeBeau’s dossier merits serious consideration for the Hall of Fame as a player, game-day coach and defensive innovator.

LeBeau is nearing the end of his 50th consecutive season in the NFL - 14 as a coach and 36 as an assistant coach. He still holds the record for consecutive games played by a cornerback (171). And LeBeau, who is widely credited with bringing the zone blitz to the pro game after meeting LSU coach Bill Arnsparger in the early 1980s, will make his fifth Super Bowl appearance as an assistant.

Still, LeBeau sidesteps any talk of his legacy, leaving his players and colleagues to perform those duties.

“He’s excellent,” said Washington Redskins secondary coach Jerry Gray, who worked with LeBeau for a year in Buffalo (2003). “As a young defensive coordinator coming up, you dream about working with guys like Dick LeBeau. If I get a chance to do it again, trust me, I’d do it because those things come in handy. He should be in the Hall of Fame.”

This year’s Steelers may represent one of LeBeau’s best coaching jobs.

Pittsburgh finished the regular season ranked first in eight major statistical categories - yards, yards a play, yards a carry, passing yards a game and completion, third-down percentage, red-zone percentage and points. The Steelers ranked among the top five in everything but fourth-down percentage (tied for 13th).

Known for making every player on the field an eligible pass rusher, LeBeau faces a challenge against Arizona’s Kurt Warner - making sure the veteran quarterback doesn’t know where the pressure is coming from. Warner picked apart the Eagles’ defense in the NFC championship game because he made the proper line calls to account for the extra rushers.

“You always try to surprise the quarterback a little bit, but when you get a veteran like that, it’s a tough challenge,” LeBeau said. “They’ll try and move him around a little bit. … You don’t play in the league as long as he’s played and have the success he’s had without being able to handle anything a defense does. He’s comfortable against the pressure. Our feeling is that offenses in general don’t play quite as well against pressure.”

Pressure is a hallmark of LeBeau’s system, but he’s not as blitz-happy as some suggest. Against Baltimore in the AFC championship game, the Steelers rushed four players 22 times and “blitzed” only seven times. But because the fourth rusher is a linebacker or safety and they rush from various spots, it forces the quarterback and offensive line to make quick decisions.

The Steelers posted 51 sacks during the regular season and, according to coaching staff statistics, an additional 49 hits and 139 pressures.

The zone blitz is a huge reason for Pittsburgh’s success. A simple example from a 3-4 alignment is a four- or five-man rush that doesn’t include a defensive lineman, who drops into coverage.

“It was really a way of getting your guys in better position,” LeBeau said. “The run-and-shoot was becoming pretty prevalent in the league, and Houston was in our division, and they were the best at it. Then the West Coast offense really spread throughout the league, and that was all quick, get-the-ball-out-of-your-hands and cut-up-the-defense passes. We were just looking for a way to get pressure without exposing our defensive backs to have to cover the whole field all of the time.”

As more coaches saw Cincinnati’s success in the mid- to late 1980s with LeBeau’s system and as he moved on to Pittsburgh and Buffalo and worked with other coaches, every team began using a variation of the zone blitz.

Gray was Buffalo’s defensive coordinator under Gregg Williams when LeBeau was hired as assistant head coach.

“We had done some of that in Tennessee,” Gray said. “We got away with it when we went to the Super Bowl [XXXIV] because we had good man-to-man guys. Dick taught us the principals of where it all came from and the thinking of it. And I listened.”

Buffalo allowed the second-fewest yards but finished 6-10, Williams was fired and LeBeau returned to Pittsburgh. From 2004 to 2006, the Steelers’ defense finished first, fourth and ninth overall. After the 2006 season, Bill Cowher resigned and Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin, a disciple of the 4-3 defense, replaced him.

Tomlin decided to keep LeBeau and three defensive assistants on staff.

“There’s not much continuity in today’s NFL, and anytime you have a chance to maintain it, I think it gives you an edge,” Tomlin said. “I had a bunch of knowledge about those men and knew what they were capable of. We were able to come in and go about the business of continuing to play great defense, and having the ability to retain those guys was pivotal.”

Tomlin compares LeBeau to longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, whom Tomlin worked for in Tampa Bay.

“Dick is a pleasure to come to work with and very similar to Monte in one critical way: They have a legitimate passion for the game,” Tomlin said. “And they have a unique way of conveying that to the players. Age is not an issue.”

The ability to keep things fresh stymies opponents and keeps things interesting for the players, who feed off LeBeau’s zeal, Woodley said.

“He just has that young attitude,” Woodley said. “Over time, things change and different guys come in, and he adjusts to that. He’s been running this defense for a long time, and usually every year we’re one of the best defenses in the league. That all starts with Coach LeBeau and the plays he’s put in and the plays he calls.”

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