LeBeau bemoans lost season
What still bothers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau about the Steelers' season of unfulfilled expectations is that he is convinced they — rather than the rival Baltimore Ravens — could have won the Super Bowl.
The Steelers went 8-8 and missed the playoffs, yet LeBeau believes there was little to no difference between them and the team that displays the Lombardi Trophy.
“Do I feel we could have done the same thing they did? I do. I do,” LeBeau told the Tribune-Review on Tuesday. “It didn't break that way.”
Watching the Super Bowl two weeks ago was a bit difficult for the 75-year-old LeBeau because, he said, “It hurts to see the Ravens win anything.”
Still, LeBeau was effusive in his praise for the Ravens, citing their back-to-back road wins at AFC No. 1-seeded Denver and No. 2-seeded New England ahead of their Super Bowl upset of the 49ers.
However, LeBeau wonders if the injury situations had been reversed — for example, Ray Lewis doesn't come back to the Ravens but Ben Roethlisberger makes a quick and effective return from his injury — if the Steelers might not have won a third Super Bowl since the 2005 season.
“They got the right people back at the right time, and we continued to have more injuries, it seemed like,” LeBeau said. “Many times that decides it.”
The Ravens (10-6) and Steelers played a pair of three-point games during the season, each winning on the other's home field. The Steelers were without Roethlisberger for both games, with Byron Leftwich playing during the 13-10 loss to Baltimore on Nov. 18 and Charlie Batch leading the Steelers to a 23-20 win in Baltimore on Dec. 2.
“Can I say with a certain amount of credence we can compete with Baltimore day-in and day-out? I know it and I can say it,” LeBeau said. “We didn't have Ben in either one of those games. I know we're a better team with Ben because he's a great player, and that's not a knock on Charlie or Byron. Ben's our No. 1 quarterback, and we didn't have him.”
The Steelers' defense finished No. 1 statistically for the second straight season and the third time since 2008 despite being without star safety Troy Polamalu for a majority of the season or a healthy linebacker James Harrison for most of it.
But while Polamalu sat out nine consecutive games and an injured knee all but wiped out his 2009 season, LeBeau is convinced that Polamalu's career isn't close to being over. Polamalu turns 32 in April.
Polamalu played as effectively as ever once he returned late in the season, LeBeau said. As a result, LeBeau is hopeful Polamalu can play at such a level — and for full seasons — for “several more years.”
“He has a lot of tremendous football talent still in him,” LeBeau said. “Once he got back on the field, I couldn't see any difference in his play than when he was winning the Defensive Player of the Year award. ... I know Troy will do everything he can to get himself physically ready to compete for a 16-game season. And we'll have to wait and see (if he can).”
LeBeau will be honored Wednesday when a plaque recognizing his Pro Football Hall of Fame selection in 2010 is unveiled at his alma mater London (Ohio) High School. LeBeau will speak to the school's students during the ceremony.
“It's not a disadvantage to come from a small town. In many ways it can be an advantage, and I'm glad to share that message with them,” LeBeau said.