Steelers' LeBeau faces another challenge
By Mark Kaboly Steelers Reporter
Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014,
It happens about once a year — like clockwork.
The Steelers defense has a bad game and the narrative quickly emerges that football has passed by 77-year old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau — that the Hall of Famer can't keep up with, and has no answer for, the new-look offenses and can't adjust in today's NFL.
Remember New England's 55 points and 610 yards last year?
Remember Cleveland and Baltimore racking up 348 yards on the ground to start the season by basically calling the same running play?
“We certainly didn't get off the way that I wanted to,” LeBeau said.
So has the game really passed by LeBeau?
“Tell me this, what about the game has changed that makes his defense outdated?” said NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots, who played cornerback under LeBeau with the Steelers and Bengals. “When people say that, it sounds kind of sexy, but does it make any sense? People who are making these statements just don't know.”
Under LeBeau, the Steelers have finished first in total defense five times and first in points allowed four times — all with the running quarterback, the read option, the wildcat and the outside zone part of offenses.
“It is not about the scheme, and it's not about the play calling,” Wilcots said. “This is about the players. X's and O's don't move by themselves. The players have changed. It is the players who make systems work. It's not the scheme, it's a lack of execution.”
The Steelers have undergone a significant change on defense over the past three years. They went from having eight 30-year-old players and an average age of 31.1 in 2011 to two 30-year-olds and 27.2 average age at the start of this season.
There are no Aaron Smiths, Casey Hamptons and James Farriors to lean on.
“There has been a lot of rebuilding,” safety Troy Polamalu said. “It's funny because people call out for a younger team, but these are the problems you have with a younger team. It's going to take time for these young guys to come in and feel really confident and be able to dominate the way we know they can.”
When the Steelers host Tampa Bay on Sunday, LeBeau will be without three starters — Jarvis Jones, Ike Taylor, Ryan Shazier — because of injury.
LeBeau will replace them with a league-minimum outside linebacker (Arthur Moats), an inside linebacker who they didn't think would play again (Sean Spence) and a cornerback they let leave two years ago (William Gay).
“Well, it is a challenge,” LeBeau said. “It's basically one-fourth of your starting lineup.
“We're fortunate that we have some good people behind them, and we'll have to adjust. It won't be the only game during the season that this situation will arise. I'm sure of that. We try to prepare for this starting at coaching sessions and up into training camp. We try to practice for Plan B and Plan C. Many games I've been a part of, you have to go to Plan B, C and D. So at least we've been through the scenario.”
LeBeau never has been through this kind of turnover so quickly. Against Tampa Bay, he will have six new starters on defense compared to the 2013 opening-day defense.
LeBeau seemingly has to prove himself on a weekly basis and usually acquits himself promptly.
“I don't pay attention to stuff like that,” defensive lineman Brett Keisel said of LeBeau's magic being gone. “We know what he means to this team and defense.”
After getting run over by the Patriots last year, the Steelers defense held Buffalo to 227 yards and 10 points the next week. After getting run over to start this year, the Steelers held Carolina to 42 yards rushing last week.
“There's nothing he hasn't seen (when) you talk about the different players with every different trend that's come into the league,” Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith said. “I think the Steelers have kind of remained true to who they are: a pressure team (with a) 3-4 alignment. Dick has modified his a little bit from time to time, but for the most part it's the same great defense you're going to see each year.”
LeBeau's 3-4 alignment still is intact, but he has modified schemes, personnel use and the way he calls blitzes.
LeBeau has gone away from defensive linemen dropping into coverage in prototypical zone-blitz schemes.
He has added more sub-package football, especially with the nickel set. He's kept four linebackers on the field in the game even in sub-packages.
LeBeau moved Polamalu to a dime linebacker last year when Larry Foote got hurt and rookie Vince Williams wasn't performing well enough. He's gone away from the fire-cross blitz, the corner blitz and the safety blitz. He's added different pass-rushing formations, one which includes no linemen with their hand in the dirt.
“If the players do what they are supposed to do, then everything is good,” Gay said.
Wilcots has first-hand knowledge of that.
Wilcots played for the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII against the 49ers. LeBeau was Cincinnati's defensive coordinator. Throughout the week, LeBeau harped on that when the 49ers needed a big play, they would go to Jerry Rice on a deep in-route.
“He said, ‘Solomon, if you are in the game, I want you to pick this ball off or you knock Jerry Rice into kingdom come.' He said the same thing to Ray Horton, and Ray happened to be the one in the game,” Wilcots said. “(Second-and-20) and they throw it to Jerry Rice, and Ray Horton misses Rice and collides with three of our defenders and he goes running into the night.
“I am here telling you that man called the right play. He had the right call. He told us all week what was going to happen, but he can't go out there and make the play.”
Some things haven't changed in 25 years.