Steelers' LeBeau says his coaching style has stayed the same
Dick LeBeau stays contemporary by being a contrarian.
He refuses to spend endless hours during the offseason re-educating himself on the offensive flavor of the month. Chances are what's new to the rest of the league is old news to a man who is in his 55th NFL season as a Hall of Fame player and coach.
“Basically, what was defense in the 1960s is what is defense in 2013,” LeBeau said. “Find the ball and get whoever's got it on the ground.”
He is in an innovator — the zone blitz defense that reshaped the way defense is played is his creation — but not necessarily an inventor. Inventing effectively requires starting all over again; LeBeau prefers to lean on what is proven to work, then make it better.
“Amazingly enough, we've changed almost nothing from the time we started coaching (in 1973),” LeBeau said. “It even amazes me, to be honest with you.”
Last season's copycat zone read offense? It's much like the triple option and veer offenses that swept through college football in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The pistol formation? The 49ers introduced the quarterback lined up in a short punt formation — the shotgun — in the 1960s.
And, to show how the mind of the NFL's oldest coach works — he will be 76 the day after the Steelers open the season Sept. 8 — look at how he defended the Redskins' artful dodger, Robert Griffin III, last season.
LeBeau took out some notes from the 1970s Arkansas defenses, the most successful of their time in defending the option.
“I've been looking at that and writing down notes for 30 years,” LeBeau said. “That's not new.”
What also isn't new is the Steelers' proven ability to remain an elite defense under LeBeau, no matter the season or the circumstances. In LeBeau's 11 seasons as coordinator, from 1995-96 and 2004-present, the Steelers have finished No. 1 overall five times — including the last two seasons — and No. 2 twice. They were lower than fifth only once.
LeBeau's strategy is no different from any successful coach. Find a weakness and attack. Locate the strength and find a way to defend it. And the Steelers have countless ways of doing this.
Cornerback Ike Taylor said the Steelers' playbook might contain 100 plays for defending a certain strategy. On certain plays, Taylor said LeBeau will make a double call, two different defenses. The defenders adjust to the proper defense once they see the offense line up.
To learn how to play a LeBeau defense — as linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Shamarko Thomas currently are — players are taught certain techniques they must rely upon. There are certain rules that apply for each defense, too; a defender might not be permitted the same latitude in one defense as another.
But once the basic concepts are learned, LeBeau mostly just tweaks the defense from game to game, adjusting to fit the opponent.
“There are a lot of different ways to do things and, if you find a way that works, I don't mess with it until it's broken,” LeBeau said.
He still coaches defensive backs the same way he did with the Eagles 40 years ago.
“What they have to do is exactly what I had to do,” said LeBeau, a star cornerback with the Lions for 14 seasons. “The players might seem a little faster, but I played against Bob Hayes, who was the world's fastest human. It's all relative. The fastest person in the world is still the fastest person in the world.”
But it's not as if LeBeau is stubborn and resistant to change.
“We're going to keep the same basic philosophy and basic foundation of what we do,” LeBeau said. “But we'll always have new stuff every year. In the NFL, you've got the top players in the world, but you've got the top coaches, and they're working, too.”
Most seasons, they're working to keep up with Dick LeBeau.
Note: Greater Latrobe Athletic director Mark Mears told the school board Tuesday that despite being called off this year, the annual Steelers night practice at Latrobe Memorial Stadium will return next year.
Despite treatment for disease, the stadium grass wasn't strong enough for the professional players, so the training camp practice — with attractions, music and vendors — was relocated to St. Vincent College on Aug. 2.
Mears said the team, including the Rooney family, told district administrators the practice will return to the stadium in 2014.