In pass-happy NFL times, Dick LeBeau finds the answers
Defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau has found a way to put the Steelers on track to again lead the NFL in pass defense.
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Even when more lenient rules made it easier for them to defend the pass, the Steelers and members of their Steel Curtain defense never managed to have the same success stopping the pass as Dick LeBeau's secondary.
At a time when the National Football League is littered with pass-happy quarterbacks and 1,000-yard receivers are as common as 300-pound linemen, LeBeau has managed to use all of his Hall of Fame experience to concoct a scheme that has slowed some of the league's top throwing arms and grounded air traffic like a northeastern snowstorm.
And that has impressed a number of former Steelers who know all about shutting down the other team, whether on the ground or through the air.
"I think it's amazing they can do as well as they do in the secondary," said former linebacker Andy Russell. "Today's rules have sort of outlawed pass coverage. The way the Steelers of the '70s played pass coverage isn't even remotely the way they play today. Today, you can't even touch these guys."
Only once during their dominating period when they won four Super Bowls in six years did the Steelers lead the NFL in pass defense, and that was in 1974. Even in 1976, when their No. 1-ranked defense had five shutouts and allowed only 28 points in the final nine games, the Steelers finished fifth.
This Steelers defense, despite injuries and a lack of a larcenous cornerback, is on track to lead the league for the third time in five years.
"Jack Ham and I were allowed to have our hands on the receiver, not holding them but pushing them," said Russell, who played on the first two Super Bowl teams and retired after being a member of the '76 defense that was one of the greatest in league history. "We spent all our time re-routing receivers. They couldn't go where they wanted to. We could have our hands on him till the ball was in the air so the quarterback couldn't find his receivers."
But LeBeau, who ranks seventh all-time in the league with 62 career interceptions, has found a way for his defense to prevent not only 300-yard passing games but 200-yard passing games as well.
"I think because Dick has played through so many eras, he knows the game, he knows the rules and he brings a style from yesteryear," said former cornerback J.T. Thomas. "If you go right on talent, there is some talent. But, if I had to say, the overriding factor is the scheme and mindset and knowledge of the game. He brings a lot of old-school mentality. He confuses most of the teams and coordinators in the league."
LeBeau, the Steelers defensive coordinator, has three mantras his players must follow:
1) Don't get beat deep.
2) Tackle the catch.
3) Don't get beat deep.
"And don't get beat deep," LeBeau said, repeating his most important commandment for emphasis.
The Steelers do that better than anybody.
Heading into today's 1 p.m. game against the San Diego Chargers, a team that likes to throw deep, the Steelers not only rank No. 1 against the pass in the NFL, they shut off the deep part of the field better than any team in the league. And they've been doing it for the past several years.
Through 12 games, they have allowed the fewest passes of 20 yards or longer (22) and 40 yards or longer (2) in the league. If that continues, it would be the third year in a row the Steelers have led the league in fewest passes of 20 yards or longer and the second year in a row for passes of 40 yards or longer.
Last year, they led the league with 34 passes of 20 yards or longer and only two passes of 40 yards or longer. That's what made their playoff loss in Denver -- a game in which Tim Tebow completed five passes of 35 yards or longer -- so surprising.
By comparison, the New England Patriots have already allowed 59 passes of 20 yards or longer this season after allowing 79 in 2011.
Since Mike Tomlin became coach in 2007, the Steelers have allowed 190 passes of 20 yards or longer, fewest in the NFL.
"It's team defense," said LeBeau, whose units led the league in pass defense in 2008 and '11. "You've got to have pressure, you've got to play coverage together and you've got to hold up in the back end. We've got a pretty good bunch of guys. We're not always where we want to be all the time. If you take the record overall, they're fighters and I'm proud of them."
There have been 104 300-yard passing games in the league this season, but none have been allowed by the Steelers. They have gone 19 games in a row without allowing a 300-yard passer -- the longest active streak in the league. Baltimore's Joe Flacco was the most recent to eclipse 300 on Nov. 6, 2011.
And, despite facing quarterbacks such as Flacco, Eli Manning, Andy Dalton and Robert Griffin III, they have gone seven games in a row without allowing a 200-yard passer, which is also the longest active streak in the NFL.
"What it comes down to is the coaches being able to come up with schemes based on their talent and putting them in the best possible position to succeed," said Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount. "Dick LeBeau, he's figured that out. He knows how to put them in those positions."
Blount, a five-time Pro Bowl player who dominated his position in the 1970s, is one of the reasons for the pass-oriented attacks that have become a way of life in the NFL.
At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Blount had the size and physical ability to manhandle receivers and keep them from getting into their routes. Because of his style of play and watching him rough up wide receiver Cliff Branch in a couple of AFC championship games, the league adopted a new rule after the 1977 season that prohibited a defensive player from contacting a receiver beyond 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.
The impact of the rule was immediate.
After having no players with 1,000 receiving yards in 1977, the league had four in 1978, 12 in 1979 and 18 by 1981.
And, after having just two quarterbacks with 3,000 yards passing in the previous four years -- and none in 1977 -- the league had 32 in the next three seasons, including 16 in 1980.
But, as Blount pointed out, "We went on to win two more Super Bowls. We were able to play under those rules."
"It's a different game today," said Thomas, who played on three of the four Super Bowl teams. "When I came into the league, I remember Bud Carson telling me after I got beat as a rookie for my first touchdown that I got two more, that as a rule of thumb you deal with three touchdowns a year."
"Today, because of the pass rules, they've conceded that they're going to catch the ball. We can't touch them anymore. We can't even wave our hands at them. The psychology is different. The whole philosophy is, don't let the guy get behind you.
"There's a different mindset with the rules. In the past, there were probably one or two guys who had 1,000 yards in receiving. That was a coveted award. Now some teams got two or three players with 1,000 yards receiving. At one time, there were maybe one or two guys with 100 receptions. The game has evolved to allow passing."
The Steelers have managed to do all this without having two of the elements usually most responsible for good pass defense -- interceptions and sacks.
They have just seven interceptions in 12 games -- tied for second fewest in the AFC -- and just 18 in the past 28 games.
And, after registering 35 sacks last season -- their fewest since 2003 -- they are on pace to have even fewer in 2012. They have 25 sacks after 12 games.
And they will be minus another element against the Chargers: Cornerback Ike Taylor, the player who usually shadows the other team's top receiver. He has a hairline fracture in his right ankle and will miss at least two games, possibly more.
Taylor will be replaced by nickel back Cortez Allen, who had three passes defensed but gave up back-to-back catches of 31 and 28 yards last week against the Baltimore Ravens.
"Their depth has really solidified," said former cornerback Mike Wagner, who played on all four Super Bowl teams. "Keenan Lewis is having a great year and Ike had a couple rough games but that's going to happen to defensive backs from time to time. They've played really solid as a unit. Ryan Clark is having another great year; he's all over the place.
"It seems all the more remarkable what they've done because Troy [Polamalu] hasn't played too much. It shows how the secondary has jelled, and that is a good time to jell this time of year."
Despite their success in the secondary, the Steelers do not get much recognition for their performance. They haven't had a cornerback selected to the Pro Bowl since Rod Woodson in 1996. However, his teammates have screamed for years that Taylor belongs in the Pro Bowl, though his lack of interceptions (14 in 10 seasons) is the reason he gets bypassed.
It is testament to what LeBeau has been able to achieve in his ninth season as defensive coordinator with the Steelers.
"I'm amazed they can play pass defense at all today," Russell said. "I'm astounded Dick can put those great defenses together. It must be some well-coordinated thing."
First Published December 9, 2012 12:00 am