Men of Steel: Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin
Current ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski once called Dick LeBeau “the best to ever coach defense,” because of his consistency over such a long period of time.
To fully understand LeBeau’s passion and knowledge for the defensive aspect of the NFL, we must go back in time. More specifically, we have to journey to 1959, when he was a fifth round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, as a defensive back.
The Browns subsequently cut him and the Detroit Lions signed him immediately. He found himself playing alongside legendary Dick “Night Train” Lane for the first portion of his 14 year career.
At times, he would play safety, simply to get playing time on such a star studded defensive backfield.
Looking at the stat line, the defensive master was a phenomenal player as well. He earned a spot at the Pro Bowl between the years 1965 and 1967. He also managed to snag 62 interceptions (seventh most in NFL history), returning them for 762 yards and three touchdowns. On top of that, he has nine fumble recoveries for 53 yards and a score.
He currently holds the record for consecutive game appearances by a cornerback, with 171.
Directly after his retirement as a player, the Philadelphia Eagles hired him as a special teams coach. And after three seasons with the Eagles, He was hired by the Green Bay Packers to coach defensive backs.
As a member of the Green Bay staff, he worked against Bart Starr, the winning quarterback of the first two Super Bowls. His defensive backs racked up 10 interceptions combined in his first season, so he obviously did something right.
After his tenure with the Packers, he was the Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator, and defensively, what a season they had in 1981. They didn’t allow opposing offenses to put up more than 30 points in any game played that year, playoffs included.
The defense totaled 19 interceptions for 318 yards, and also sacked opposing quarterbacks 41 times.
The Bengals would go onto the AFC Championship game, beating a star studded San Diego Chargers team that boasted three current Hall Of Famers, Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow. Along with that talented trio they also had Chuck Muncie at running back, who led the league with 19 touchdowns in the '81 season.
With such a potent offense, one would imagine that the Chargers would put up an unfathomable amount of points, but they would be wrong. The Chargers prolific offense only managed to achieve a single touchdown against Dick LeBeau’s defense.
The Bengals played the San Francisco Forty-Niners in Super Bowl XVI, and gave an early appearance of defeat, while facing a 20-0 halftime deficit. But they fought back, eventually narrowing the margin to the final score of 26-21 in favor of San Francisco.
Seven years later, in 1988, the Bengals would once again reach the Super Bowl led by a powerful defensive line that consisted of Tim Krumrie, Jim Skow, David Grant, and Jason Buck. To go along with that superb line, LeBeau also coached two great defensive backs, who combined for 12 interceptions.
Once more, however, the Bengals would fall short in their Super Bowl endeavors. And once more, it was to the San Francisco franchise.
In 1992, LeBeau's Pittsburgh legacy began. He was hired as the defensive backs coach and promoted to defensive coordinator by 1995.
During the 1994 season, he sent four defensive players to the Pro Bowl, Kevin Greene, Carnell Lake, Greg Lloyd, and Rod Woodson.
One year later, he coached the second ranked defense in the league, allowing only 4,833 total yards. Led by Kevin Green (nine sacks), Greg Lloyd (86 tackles), and Carnell Lake (one interception; one touchdown).
Once more, LeBeau would fall short in the Super Bowl, and this time losing to the Dallas Cowboys.
In 2000, he was hired by the Bengals again, this time as head coach. He experienced dismal seasons in Cincinnati, then moved on to become a Bills assistant for a year.
He then returned to the Pittsburgh in 2004, becoming a two time Super Bowl winner, and coaching the league's best defense in 2008.
This number one ranked defense consisted of stars and role players alike, with some players making an entirely new persona over the course of the season. The team was led by University of Southern California product, Troy Polamalu, and Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison.
The Steelers stifled opponent’s offenses throughout the regular season and on to the Super Bowl.
LeBeau is commonly credited for creating and mastering the "Zone Blitz," which is primarily run out of a 3-4 defensive alignment.
The entire focus and goal of this blitz is to confuse opposing offenses, never allowing them to know which players are rushing and which will drop back into pass coverage. Commonly, a defensive lineman will drop into a short coverage zone, while allowing a linebacker to blitz in his wake.
Although it’s recorded as a blitz, at times it’s not technically a traditional one. Sometimes his defenses will still only rush four defensive players, just not the ones generally expected.
This allows the defense to keep an advantageous position over the offense, by never allowing them to get comfortable, due to the enormous amount of looks shown by the defense.
When asked about why he created the new defensive scheme, LeBeau replied:
“It was a thought process kind of born out of necessity. It was basically an outcropping of the run-and-shoot [offense] that was becoming pretty prevalent in the league back then. We were in the same division as Houston, and they were tremendous at it with Moon and Co.
Then the West Coast offense was spreading throughout the league. Those were all quick-rhythm, get-the-ball-out-of-your-hands-and-cut-up-the-defense types of passing games. We were just looking for ways to get pressure without exposing our defensive backs to have to cover the whole field all of the time.”
Dick LeBeau is quite simply a defensive genius, beloved by players and fans alike, respected throughout the league, and a sure first ballot Hall Of Famer.
Mike Tomlin, like Dick LeBeau is a former football player, though he never played in the NFL.
His coaching career started in the college ranks, the year after he graduated from the College of William & Mary, as a wide receivers coach at the Virginia Military Institute. More than likely, it's because he played the position in college.
From 1995 to 2001, he remained in the college ranks, staying at the University of Cincinnati for longer than a year.
In 2001 he accepted the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive backs coaching job, and held the position until 2005.
He got his first taste of the Tampa 2 defense with the Bucs, and would use it to further his coaching career down the line.
During Tomlin’s reign in Tampa Bay, they boasted the number one overall defense twice, in 2002 and again in 2005. He was also a part of the coaching staff that won Super Bowl XXXVII in January of 2003. During that Super Bowl season, his defense intercepted five passes and returned all but two for touchdowns.
He became the Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator in 2006. While in Minnesota, he was reunited with former college teammate, Darren Sharper. The 2006 Minnesota team finished the season ranked No. 8 in overall defense, ranking first against the run, but an abysmal 32nd against the pass.
The very next year he was hired as the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach, as Bill Cowher’s successor. Tomlin had also interviewed for the Miami Dolphins head coaching job, which was eventually filled by Cam Cameron.
He’s Pittsburgh’s 19th head coach and just the third in 40 years, with the others two being Chuck Noll and Cowher. All three of these men were hired in their thirties, and all have won a Super Bowl with the Steelers.
Tomlin is also the first African American coach in the history of the Steelers, and the tenth in NFL history.
Tomlin continued the Steelers rookie head coaching success by winning his first game, while also becoming the first Pittsburgh coach to win his first meeting with the Cleveland Browns.
Mike Tomlin bit the bullet and kept Dick LeBeau from Cowher’s staff, even though their defensive philosophies were leaps and bounds apart. It was done mainly as a motivating factor for the players and to keep team chemistry going, as the team had won a Super Bowl only a year prior.
In his first season as a head coach, his team led the NFL in defense. He also won his first AFC North divisional title, with a 10-6 record. He did not, however, progress through the first round of the playoffs, as the Steelers were beaten by the Jacksonville Jaguars in a close game.
Tomlin and Cowher began their careers with the exact same number of wins in regular season play (15-7). Don Shula, who is the NFL’s all time wins leader, also began his career that way. Not to mention, Tomlin is the only Steelers head coach to win his division in his first two seasons.
This past season, Tomlin became the youngest head coach to ever coach, and win, a Super Bowl. And only the third African American to coach in the big game, and the second to win it.
Mike Tomlin’s career record currently stands at 25-11, including 22-10 in the regular season and 3-1 in the playoffs.
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