There’s a look Dick LeBeau gets on his face when the Hall-of-Fame defensive coordinator sees a breakdown on film that Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton knows all too well.
It’s not quite anger. Or frustration for that matter.
It’s way worse than that.
“It’s like when a dad gets disappointed with his kids,” Hampton said. “He’s not mad. He just knows what we’re capable of doing.”
And far too often during Pittsburgh’s sluggish start, the kids were letting the old man down.
The Steelers (4-3) squandered second-half leads in all three of their losses, letting the likes Tennessee and Oakland — not exactly the 2007 New England Patriots — rally to victory. The front seven couldn’t generate any pressure. The secondary couldn’t cover anybody and critics woofed the unit featuring seven starters in their 30s was past its prime, its 75-year-old architect included.
“It’s just like somebody talking about your pops,” nose tackle Steve McLendon said. “So you just want to go out there and show them that pops is a great guy and I guess that’s what we’ve been doing.”
In two short weeks, a defense that struggled to get off the field has returned to its typically efficient self. Pittsburgh held Cincinnati to 185 total yards then drummed the Redskins and superstar-in-training Robert Griffin III in a surprisingly easy 27-12 win last Sunday.
Heading into this weekend’s visit to the defending Super Bowl-champion New York Giants (6-2), the Steelers are second in the NFL in yards allowed and first against the pass.
What changed? Not LeBeau. Asked if he’s suddenly gotten smarter since a 26-23 loss to Tennessee on Nov. 12 put the Steelers perilously close to falling off the pace in the cluttered AFC, the eternally self-deprecating coach just laughs.
“It’s definitely not that,” he said.
It’s not Troy Polamalu either.
The backbone of the NFL’s best defense over the last decade has been limited to just two games due to right calf injury. Linebacker James Harrison didn’t play the first month while recovering from knee surgery and though he’s been solid since his return, he’s managed all of one sack.
Then again, Harrison is hardly alone. The Steelers have gotten to the quarterback just 12 times this season and have created only seven turnovers.
LeBeau stresses his players need to create more “splash” plays to help out the offense, but the Steelers have gotten by without them simply by eliminating mistakes and doing the little things LeBeau preaches, tackling and playing fast being chief among them.
The Redskins dropped 10 passes in the rain last week, some of them due to sloppy execution, others due to the approaching footsteps of a Pittsburgh defensive back.
It’s what the Steelers have always done under LeBeau, who spent 14 years patrolling the secondary with the Detroit Lions, developing a reputation as one of the most physical and cerebral players in the game.
Forty years after retiring, he’s still preaching the virtue of doing things the right way.
To LeBeau, that means being a teacher instead of a taskmaster. It’s why he doesn’t lose his temper when things go wrong, unless you count getting angry at yourself.
“I learned better when people didn’t holler at me,” LeBeau said.
LeBeau gets greater mileage out of a quiet pep talk and a quick pointer than a paint-peeling tirade.
“He’s a Hall of Famer, coach and player,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “When he talks to you and he pats you on your back, it does a lot more coming from him and his pedigree than a normal coach would.”