AFC NORTH Steelers welcome the return of Dick LeBeau
The defensive coordinator wants Pittsburgh to be more unpredictable.
LATROBE, Pa. (AP) -- Temperatures cooled considerably at the Pittsburgh Steelers' training camp Friday, not that it really mattered. Dick LeBeau turned up the heat on his defense days ago.
LeBeau, largely responsible for the zone blitzes and keep-the-pressure-on defensive schemes the Steelers popularized in the mid-1990s, has returned as defensive coordinator following an eight-year absence spent partly as Cincinnati's coach.
While he didn't duplicate copies of the Steelers' 1994 defensive playbook and distribute them to his players, the basic philosophy is the same now as it was then.
Namely, dictate to the offense, not the other way around. Never look the same from one down to the next. Keep the offense off-balance. Incorporate the element of the surprise without relying too much on tricks and gimmicks.
"It's a safer way to put pressure on the offense," LeBeau said.
LeBeau, 67, was brought back following a 6-10 season during which it became obvious that former defensive coordinator Tim Lewis and coach Bill Cowher disagreed on defensive strategy -- to the point Cowher publicly nudged Lewis during a press conference to be more aggressive. Lewis now is the New York Giants' defensive coordinator.
"Tim was an excellent coach, don't kid yourself," said defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, who once played for LeBeau in Cincinnati. "LeBeau is just more diversified. He's been in a few different systems and had success other than just with a 3-4 defense. He's more seasoned, and he's not afraid to take more chances."
That was obvious during a public practice Wednesday night when safety Chris Hope blitzed during a goal-line drill and leveled running back Jerome Bettis with a big hit.
Lewis tried, with mixed results, to cover up deficiencies in his since-revamped secondary by being less risky. The pass defense improved, but it meant a defense long known for its unpredictability became easier for opposing offenses to figure out.
Statistically, the impact wasn't that great -- the Steelers went from No. 7 in defense during a 10-5-1 season in 2002 to No. 9 -- but the changes affected the mindset of defensive players accustomed to being proactive rather than reactive. At one point, linebacker Joey Porter urged Lewis to turn the defense loose again.
A week into camp, LeBeau has signaled some of the changes he plans to make, such as using the five defensive backs more than Lewis did while not relying as heavily on the six-backs dime scheme.
"Yeah, we're using a lot more nickel," von Oelhoffen said. "Last year on first down we were No. 1 against the run, but on second down people tried to spread us out and forced us to go more nickel, so we've got to develop that package."
Cornerback Deshea Townsend said the Steelers are doing much what they did previously -- they're just doing more of it.
"It's just a different form, sending guys in different directions," Townsend said.
LeBeau is considered the architect of the zone blitz, though it has been refined, expanded, copied and revised by numerous teams over the last 10 years. Some of that transformation occurred when LeBeau, Dom Capers and Cowher -- all of them current or former NFL head coaches -- worked together in Pittsburgh.
"The concepts of it are pretty much the same," LeBeau said. "One of the plusses of it is once the foundation is in, you can do a lot of different things and it's still familiar to the players. It gives you flexibility without a lot of learning."
One concern is the Steelers will begin the season with two new starting safeties (Hope and 2003 first-rounder Troy Polamalu) and a cornerback (Townsend) who has started less than half a season.
Otherwise, the only change on defense is former backup Clark Haggans replacing outside linebacker Jason Gildon, the franchise's career sacks leader.
"I wouldn't say it's a worry," LeBeau said. "Every year, teams change and I think it's a concern for all coaches until you go out and start playing. ... We're guardedly optimistic about the athletes we have, it's an excellent group physically and we've got a good attitude. If the coach doesn't mess them up, I think we've got a chance to have a pretty good defense."