In wake of his acceptance as an Allstate Hometown Hall of Famer, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau talks to Behind The Steel Curtain about the team's conditioning, their desire to bring in a young safety and the value of consistency.
Hall of Fame member and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau knows something about age. Entering his 40th year as a coach, and having played for 13 years before that, there's basically nothing he hasn't seen on a football field.
It's just been a while since he set foot on his high school's field in London, Ohio, as a participant.
LeBeau was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, increasing the legacy of one of the most diverse overall contributors the game has ever seen. He will be honored as an Allstate Hometown Hall of Famer in London at 2 p.m. ET today, in the high school's gymnasium - where LeBeau also excelled as a basketball player.
He spoke with Behind The Steel Curtain in wake of the ceremony, sharing insight from the past, present and future.
And how perfect is that perspective right now, considering the tenuous state of the Steelers' roster? Some may call it old, which is true; no team in the league had more players with 11 or more years of experience.
Some say the notion of rebuilding began a while ago, and the team isn't as old as many think. This is also true; only six other teams in the league had more starters in their third and fourth years in the league.
When greeted on the phone with the standard, "how are you doing today," LeBeau responded, "Not bad for an old guy," with a smile in his voice.
You wouldn't know it to look at the man. He looks closer to 50 than 80; he'll turn 76 on Sept. 9, one day after Sunday's action in Week 1. You'd absolutely feel it to speak to him. A certain wisdom and calmness oozes from him with each question. He speaks with a slower drawl and an even-metered pace that matches his commitment to consistency.
The Steelers have run his version of the 3-4 defense (with wrinkles and variations) since 2004. Pittsburgh has led the NFL in yardage defense during that time, not straying from the basic mantra of stopping the run, forcing teams to become one-dimensional.
Players have come and gone under LeBeau and more will come and go in the future. While many live in the moment, LeBeau's approach is geared around the bigger picture; answering the question "where are we going?"
He has a teacher's soul, speaking in metaphors about classrooms more often than the gridiron. Consistency is a key in education. One of the underlooked areas of consistency the Steelers defense will enjoy this year is the return of the same group of coaches. While the offensive side of the ball has a new offensive line coach (Jack Bicknell) and receivers coach (Richard Mann), the defense will keep the same group intact, even if the personnel might change.
"I think our players are used to the way certain instructors present certain material," LeBeau said. "The more you can stay constant, the more cerebral an atmosphere in that classroom."
The first player LeBeau mentioned in his Hall of Fame speech in 2010 was free safety Ryan Clark. A free agent acquisition in 2006, Clark has been a figurehead in that cerebral classroom during that time. He's also made himself prominently involved in a recent discussion involving the conditioning of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
It seems as the gap between ages among the team is coming to a head. The Steelers need LeBeau's guidance now more than ever.
LeBeau didn't flinch when asked for his thoughts on Woodley's conditioning (he didn't say it, but he seemed to disagree with the notion, or at least didn't give it much credence), but re-directed it again to the bigger picture.
"He knows his conditioning is an Investment in his future. Overall our guys do a good job of that. Look at the track record of our defense over the years."
Was conditioning a factor in the amount of injuries the team has had on both sides of the ball over the last few years?
"For all players, the better condition they're in when they start the offseason program, the better they'll be at the end," he said. "Back in the day I played, we pretty much used training camp to get into shape. Those days gone forever.
"We encourage and generally recommend they get away from it for a while, but never get too far physically out of shape. When they start, it's pretty much a year-round obligation."
A simplified approach; too much training can be as detrimental as too little. LeBeau said the coaches make recommendations as needed to players as far as their conditioning goes, but the specifics are left to strength and conditioning coach Garrett Giemont and head coach Mike Tomlin.
He didn't dismiss the notion of simple wear and tear. Refreshing the Steelers defense with youth is a priority on the defensive side of the ball, according to LeBeau. He said the coaches are "very much involved" with scouting both at the collegiate level and within the NFL, and the Steelers are looking to get younger on the defensive side of the ball.
"We've had a great nucleus for some time but some guys are getting up there in the age column," LeBeau said. "We're Looking to expand our depth. You can never have too many good players. In the areas we're getting up in years in the age column we'd like to address that."
He pointed toward the safety position in particular. Stopping short of saying he was pushing the selection of a safety high in the upcoming draft, it was clear he viewed bringing one in as a priority.
Not that he isn't satisfied with the abilities of Clark and Troy Polamalu, but he went back into teaching mode, suggesting that it isn't an issue with getting Clark and Polamalu off the field as much as it's about getting a younger guy around the two of them so they can learn.
"Both our safeties are tremendous and they're over 30," he said. "We'd like to get a younger guy in there to learn the position."
What about former undrafted free agent Robert Golden?
"As the season progressed (Golden) actually got quite a bit of playing time. Those are the kinds of people we need to step up and ready to take their role in the defense on a full time basis.
"We still wouldn't be adverse to bringing another young guy in."
Taking that at face value, LeBeau is strongly hinting at the Steelers' desire for another young safety. He wouldn't confirm if that meant it was a target of the draft or in free agency, but he was more open about admitting a need there than outside linebacker - the odds-on favorite of many fans at the No. 17 pick.
LeBeau accepted the criticism surrounding the team's decline in sacks over the last two years, mentioning it's an area in which the team needs to improve, putting the challenge on himself to increase their middle-of-the-pack numbers. He expressed his excitement over the development of second-year undrafted OLB Adrian Robinson, and pointed toward him as a player to watch for the future.
"He has very quick get-off," LeBeau said. "He has excellent promise as outside upfield pass rusher. His work ethic is very complimentary. He's an alert guy, we're very pleased with the strides he made."
Many years ago, another scout likely said similar things about LeBeau the player. That came from his success in college, which was all based on his upbringing, LeBeau said. His Hometown Hall of Famer plaque will sit in the gym in London, another tribute to the town's favorite son. He said he struggled to describe how deep of an honor he felt the award is, and how excited he is at the opportunity to give back to the youth of the area.
"It's such an honor, we all grow up and have our hometown heroes, people we look up to. To be able to come back to that town and be honored with this type of ceremony is an amazing feeling.
"I feel extremely excited and honored to speak to the youth of the town, and to thank the older people of the town who contributed to my success. I don't know if you can adequately express it, but it's a great honor, very humbling. I'm very proud."
In a time of the year when minutia trumps perspective and prospects largely out-rank veterans, LeBeau admitted there's work to be done, but he's going to teach class the way he always has.
And it's hard to argue with that.