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Starkey: LeBeau, Ryan masters of defense

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Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011

Rex Ryan, then coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens' defense, was walking off the field at training camp in 2007 when I asked him about his Pittsburgh counterpart, Dick LeBeau.

I wanted to know what Ryan thought of LeBeau possibly using defensive end Brett Keisel the way the Ravens had deployed linebacker Adalius Thomas a year earlier — roaming all over the field.

"It's no surprise Coach LeBeau would look at some of the things we do," Ryan said. "Trust me, we steal from him, too."

Oh, to have been a fly on the grease board as the defensive game plans were formulated for Sunday's AFC title game. To have been privy to the inner worlds of Ryan and LeBeau, who along with that Belichick guy have produced the most consistently excellent defenses of the new millennium.

We're talking about two of the more creative defensive thinkers in NFL history. LeBeau's zone blitz attack has driven many an offensive coordinator to drink. Ryan's "Organized Chaos" in Baltimore produced ridiculous numbers, such as nine sacks of Ben Roethlisberger in a single game.

It's not how many people Ryan or LeBeau send toward the quarterback, it's how many the offense thinks they're sending, then deciphering from where.

The masters are coming off vintage performances. LeBeau's defense held the Ravens to an unthinkable 126 total yards. Ryan's Jets made Tom Brady look like a jittery rookie.

From this vantage point, the most fascinating storyline Sunday is which defensive guru turns in the winning plan. Everything these two men have ever known — every shred of tape, every little trick, every tip from every mentor — could be in play.

Ryan and his top defensive assistant, Mike Pettine, are targeting a patchwork Steelers line. LeBeau and head coach Mike Tomlin are taking aim at a vulnerable second-year quarterback, Mark Sanchez.

On the surface, Ryan and LeBeau could not be more dissimilar.

Could you picture, for example, Ryan strumming an acoustic guitar in his spare time, as LeBeau does, or LeBeau punching out his neighbor, like Ryan did several years ago?

Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has worked with both men.

"Rex is going to tell everybody how he's going to do it," Lewis said by phone, chuckling. "Dick will tell very few people, but both will be very satisfied with the result."

Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson weighed in yesterday as well. He played for the Ravens when Ryan was the line coach there and for the Steelers under LeBeau.

"Polar opposites," Woodson said. "Dick LeBeau is very humble. Rex Ryan, you could almost say, is borderline cocky. But the great thing about this league is that both ways work."

You want different?

LeBeau has preserved his 73-year-old body so well that he doesn't look a day over 50. Ryan had gastric-bypass surgery last March and still pounds pretzel M&M's.

LeBeau once scored a movie part as Michael Caine's stunt double. Ryan, 48, could have been John Candy's stunt double.

Truthfully, though, the similarities outweigh the differences, starting with their philosophies. Lewis called Ryan's system "a derivative of the zone blitz."

"Both guys are looking first to stop the run and, secondly, to take apart the protection," Lewis said.

Both men, clearly, are comfortable in their skin and not just respected but beloved by players.

"Communication is the key," said Corey Ivy, who played cornerback for Ryan at Oklahoma and for both men in the pros. "Both are straight with players."

LeBeau, by the way, isn't void of ego. What leader of men doesn't have an ego• It's a prerequisite for the job. Quick example: When I asked him one long-ago afternoon if he or Dom Capers was more responsible for the zone blitz, let's just say LeBeau made it very clear it wasn't Dom Capers.

"I think they're both very, very confident in their abilities," Lewis said.

One of them will succeed Sunday.

One of these teams will be headed to Super Bowl XLV on the strength of a dominant defensive performance.

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