HOUSTON, TX - OCTOBER 02: Safety Troy Polamalu #43 talks to defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau of the Pittsburgh Steelers on the sidelines against the Houston Texans on October 2, 2011 at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas. Texans won 17 to 10. (Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)
Random thoughts often go through my head during the day. One landed today to the point I wanted to scrawl it out and see how it took.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is well known for his ability to put his system first, demand his players follow it to a T and in that, utilize those players to the best of their abilities.
He is dynamic with his defense (serving as the defensive coordinator), presenting multiple looks through several successful seasons.
Dick LeBeau contrasts with that philosophy in a few ways. LeBeau is static in his base approach. There are wrinkles, obviously, but Pittsburgh’s base defense has been a 3-4 for going on two decades now. LeBeau does just fine getting the most out of his players (Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison wasn’t drafted, Joey Porter was a third round pick, Ike Taylor barely even played cornerback when he was selected in the fourth round), but his approach is much more consistent – conservative even.
Yet, both coaches have multiple Super Bowls, and will go down as two of the better defensive minds of their era.
Thinking about it from a bigger picture perspective, it seems Belichick’s philosophy really leans on his confidence in his coaching ability, eye for talent and trusting of his position coaches to execute an ever-changing defensive strategy.
Not that either of them are incapable of doing what the other does, they just choose their own way. Lots of different ways to get from Washington, D.C. to Manhattan.
Maybe that philosophy hindered Belichick’s defense last year. They ranked at or near the bottom in yards allowed, and not particularly impressive in points allowed, either. His borderline amazing ability to maintain a quality secondary filled with younger, lower-level prospects hit a bit of a snag last season, and while scoring big on linebackers like Jared Mayo (first round pick) and Rob Ninkovich (very underrated free agent signing), his team’s pass rush was weak at best. And yet, they still made the Super Bowl.
How often will Belichick’s defense, statistically, be as poor as they were in 2011? They put up great performances in two playoff wins (Ninkovich did what the Steelers could not, contain QB Tim Tebow), and it’s tough to label their Super Bowl loss to New York as a defensive breakdown.
While the Steelers’ one-and-out playoff performance wasn’t a shimmering example of LeBeau’s excellence, they led the NFL in scoring defense for the second straight year, and that was with several veterans in the front seven missing extensive time (every week, a starter was missing and each front seven starter missed at least one game, except ILB Lawrence Timmons - but he was moved out of position due to those injuries several times). They led the league in scoring and pass yards allowed, but they were among the bottom half of the league in sacks, and had, I believe, the lowest takeaway total ever for a playoff team. It’s hard to say this defense will be much, if any, less than what it was last year.
Doesn’t it seem as if these two teams – both with reason to believe their offenses will score a fair amount of points this year – are on a collision course? Is this finally the year for two of the game’s best over the last 11 seasons to square off one more time in the playoffs? The Harrisons and the Bradys and the Polamalus and the Wilforks, and the other last-standing members of dynasty-level teams, doing battle to settle it all? Maybe I’ve just wiped the dust off some bad 2001 memories courtesy of Mr. DeFeo’s column on Kordell Stewart, but I think the Patriots and Steelers will square off twice this year.
And the second one will be epic.