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High expectations

By Scott Brown
Friday, March 6, 2009
 

Here is something that could make Maalox the beverage of choice for offensive coordinators around the league.

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said there is still room for improvement for outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who combined for 27.5 sacks last season.

"I think they will get better," LeBeau said. "It's a challenge for us from a coaching standpoint to keep expanding, giving them stuff that can make us better."

That challenge explains the notes that cover a white board in LeBeau's office at the Steelers' South Side practice facility.

LeBeau writes down innovations, ideas and plays that come to him during the course of a season. He sorts through all of those small pieces of paper and separates the ideas that are worth trying from the ones that wind up at the bottom of a wastebasket.

"I've probably got 50 ideas up there," LeBeau said.

Given LeBeau's success, probably few of his brainstorms are not worth at least a look during offseason practices.

Last season the Steelers nearly became the first team since the 1991 Eagles to lead the NFL in rushing, passing and total defense. Harrison and Woodley set a Steelers single-season record for sacks by a duo. Yet what leads LeBeau to conclude that both still have plenty of upside is that they only have three years of starting NFL experience between them.

Harrison, who is entering the final year of his contract, and Woodley will be among the returning leaders on a defense that may lose only one starter from last season. Cornerback Bryant McFadden, an unrestricted free agent, likely will sign elsewhere.

But the unit that yielded the fewest points in the NFL in 2008 may not miss a beat, as the Steelers are high on cornerback William Gay, the likely replacement for McFadden if the latter does not return.

Gay, a second-year man out of Louisville, started four games last season when injuries sidelined McFadden and Deshea Townsend. Gay did well enough that he logged significant playing time even after McFadden returned from a broken forearm.

When asked if Gay is ready to become a starter, LeBeau said, "B-Mac started (at the end of last season), but William played almost an equal number of snaps, so in my mind that question's already been answered. I think we've got a good, quality player there who should continue to grow."

Developing youngsters like Gay and squeezing even more out of supreme talents like Harrison and Woodley is something that still drives LeBeau.

He's 71 and is entering his 51st year in the NFL as a player or coach, but LeBeau has not given any indication that he is close to retiring.

He said he is "dumbfounded" about rumors, which surfaced before Super Bowl XLIII, that the 2008 season might be his last. LeBeau, who found out about the rumors from his son, assured his players that such speculation had not come from him.

He said he is as passionate about coaching as ever.

"Who would not want to be a part of these guys by how they played last year?" LeBeau said. "I suppose there will come a time physically when I won't be able to do it, but I don't think that time has come yet. I feel good, and these guys are a joy to coach.

"What would I be doing if I wasn't here• I'd be watching football, going to football games or writing a football book. I'd rather be coaching."

Notes: The Steelers and Harrison's agent, Bill Parise, talked Wednesday and Thursday about a contract extension. ... With the free-agent signing period a week old, the Steelers have yet to host a free agent.

Additional Information:

What's next?

Steelers outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley proved to be a dynamic pass-rushing duo in 2008, and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said the two still have room to improve. Here is a brief look at what each did last season:

Harrison

• Became first undrafted free agent to win NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors

• Set Steelers single-season sack record (16)

• Turned in the longest play in Super Bowl history when he returned an INT 100 yards for a TD

Woodley

• Recorded 11 12 sacks in his first season as a starter

• Had six sacks in three postseason games

• Holds the NFL record for consecutive multi-sack games (four) in the postseason

 

 
 


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