PITTSBURGH — At 73 years old, Dick LeBeau still has that “swagger.” He still designs and makes the calls for one of the league’s best and most aggressive defenses. He still finds new ways to be innovative.
But the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator also has remained humble enough to know staffers at the team’s practice facility by name. He does push-ups with his players, and has even been known to shed a tear when those same players who admire him so much go out of their way to pay him tribute.
In the nine seasons LeBeau has served as the Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator, the team has never finished ranked lower than No. 9 defensively in the NFL, and its average ranking is No. 3. This season, no team allowed less points and only one permitted less yardage than the Steelers (13-4), who host the New York Jets (13-5) Sunday in the AFC championship game.
It’s those types of results that earn players’ attention. But when it comes to LeBeau and the Steelers, the members of what has been arguably the league’s most consistently dominant defense over the past decade take their respect for him almost to a level of reverence.
“He’s like a father figure to everybody,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “You won’t find another guy who is coach LeBeau. A guy of his stature, knows defense in and out, pretty much made up the ‘fire-zone blitz’ packages. He’s very laid-back, real cool, real collected. Usually, you see those guys and they have egos. There’s not one cell in his body that has a bad ego. Very humble.
“You can go on and on about coach LeBeau.”
Can’t you tell?
“He’s the best defensive coach,” linebacker James Farrior said, “I’ve ever been around.”
That’s saying something. Farrior’s been around for 14 seasons.
“He just makes you want to work for him,” defensive end Ziggy Hood said. “We love and respect what he does and everything that he gives to us.”
Right now, he’s put this unit on the verge of another Super Bowl. And something tells us, LeBeau knows how to keep it focused this week.
“Of course he’s a great defensive coordinator, a great coach,” defensive tackle Chris Hoke said. “He gets the best out of all of us. But also on a personal level, everybody respects and everybody loves the guy. On and off the field, I think everybody appreciates him.”
The players have shown it publicly in a myriad of ways over the years.
There’s the time the entire defense sprung for authentic replica Detroit Lions No. 44 jerseys, a tribute to his playing days as one of the best defensive backs of his generation. The way they openly campaigned for years for his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — and the way they all showed up at his induction ceremony when he finally made it in 2010.
“I’ve said consistently they’re the best PR department I’ve gotten,” LeBeau said. “They got me in there. It was great. It’s very humbling to be honest with you. It’s the type of thing that makes you think you made the right career choice. When the guys that you’re working with can treat you like that, it’s a very, very special thing and it’s a lifetime memory and something I will never forget.”
LeBeau has had two different tenures as Steelers defensive coordinator (sandwiched around, among other things, a head-coaching stint in Cincinnati). Despite having a background in a completely different style of defense, Mike Tomlin kept LeBeau when he was hired to replace Bill Cowher as head coach in 2007.
Tomlin said LeBeau “inspires” him.
“He’s a special man,” Tomlin said, “arguably the best in the world at what he does.”
Tough to argue with that.
“It’s nothing that this game can present to him that he hasn’t seen in this league,” Tomlin said. “And I think the guys have a level of respect for it. But at the same time, he has a unique and very authentic way of relating those stories and lessons to the men.”
LeBeau’s defenses have been known for their creative blitzes and the pressure they put on the opposing quarterback — and for being stifling against the run.
This season, Pittsburgh led the league in sacks with 48, and the mere 62.8 rushing yards per game they allowed was the third-lowest since the NFL merger in 1970.
But no team this season ran for more against the Steelers than the Jets, who had 106 yards in a 22-17 win Dec. 19. Pittsburgh also uncharacteristically managed only one sack in that game. LeBeau acknowledged the Steelers will have to do a better job.
“Coach LeBeau has another game film to look at, how they attacked us, how he wants to stop certain things,” Hoke said. “So he’ll come up with some new wrinkles to stop what they want to do to us.”
Jets coach Rex Ryan made his name as a defensive coordinator with the Baltimore Ravens. He called LeBeau “a legend,” and joked that he’d rank him as the league’s best at his job if it weren’t for the fact that Ryan’s twin, Rob, also was a defensive coordinator.
“He’s always on the cutting edge of creating new things,” Ryan said of LeBeau. “His players play extremely hard for him. They have great trust in him.”
And it’s that trust that keeps LeBeau coming back, year after year. In fact, he has a standard retort for those who dare to ask when he plans to retire after 52 consecutive years in the NFL as a player or coach.
“I’m not even the oldest coach in the state of Pennsylvania,” he said. “There’s a guy up here at Penn State, he’s 10 years older than me, so I feel like a baby.”
The prospect of outlasting Penn State’s 84-year-old Joe Paterno aside, LeBeau doesn’t sound like a man making his final Super Bowl run.
“I don’t think these guys had too bad a year defensively, and we’ve still got some defense to play,” he said. “So if somebody wants me to work, I think maybe we can still get them in and out of the huddle a couple times.”
See what they’re talking about? That “swagger.”