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Despite final years of struggle, Dick LeBeau's legacy is firmly intact

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The final few years of Dick LeBeau's time as defensive coordinator for the Steelers weren't so successful. However, the body of work that includes several number one defenses and the love and respect of just about everyone will be what people remember years from now.

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Terry Bradshaw missed all but one half of one game for the Steelers in 1983 before calling it a career. Franco Harris was cut in training camp in 1984 and signed in Seattle, where he gained just 170 yards and quietly faded into the sunset.

During that same '84 campaign, Jack Lambert only started three games because of a turf toe injury that ultimately ended his career before the Steelers next campaign began.

Hines Ward was barely a factor in 2011, his 1,000th and final catch of his career coming on a little shovel pass in the last regular season game against the Browns.

Heck, the legendary Chuck Noll, who won four Super Bowls in the 1970s and 209 games overall, averaged under seven wins a season over his final nine years as head coach, before retiring following the 1991 camaign.

With very few exceptions, even the careers of the all-time greats fizzle towards the end, as either age, injury or just circumstances catch up with them, and they ultimately must come to grips with the very sad handwriting on the wall.

Such was the case for Dick LeBeau, the Steelers legendary defensive coordinator who resigned on Saturday after 11 years, his second stint in Pittsburgh at that position (he also coached the Steelers defense in 1995 and 1996). LeBeau's second tenure as DC for the Steelers included five units that finished number one; an iconic status for his famed zone blitz 3-4 defense; and the love, respect and admiration  of just about every player he ever coached (and maybe, more remarkably, the ones he didn't).

At 77, it's unclear whether age or circumstances played a role in the decline of LeBeau's defense over the past four seasons, a defense that averaged just under 35 sacks from 2011-2014 after averaging 48 from 2008-2010, but like a lot of things in sports, it was probably a combination.

Obviously, when opposing players see the same formations, stunts and blitzes year after year, and they're being performed by largely the same personnel, eventually tendencies will be easier to detect and exploit. And when this familiar personnel starts to collectively get older and less explosive, it just adds to the ability of opposing offenses to take advantage of a once dominant unit.

It doesn't matter how many wrinkles you add to a scheme, when the players who are expected to perform in these schemes are approaching their mid-30s and are probably developing age wrinkles and gray hair, it's usually not going to work out so well.

On the opposite side of the coin is youth and inexperience, and if you want to throw in just plain average talent, that would also describe some of the problems LeBeau encountered over the past few years, as he tried to get his defense to reach the same heights it achieved in the previous decade.

Also, when you've done something as long as LeBeau has (he landed his first defensive coordinator job in 1984, according to his wikipedia page), it becomes more difficult to change and adapt. And why would LeBeau want to adapt? After all, he's had so much success during his career, it's kind of hard to blame anything but a lack of talent as the culprit in Pittsburgh these days.

But it's a bottom line business, and in a league where there seems to be a direct correlation between an opportunistic defense and Super Bowl success (no Super Bowl-winning defense has ever produced less than 25 takeaways in a non-strike season), it's hard to ignore the fact that Pittsburgh's defense has averaged just 19 over the past four years.

Whether it's a lack of a pass-rush or a lack of "splash-play" defenders, the end-result is the end-result.

But regardless of how LeBeau's time in Pittsburgh finished-out (he may still coach somewhere in the future), like the Steelers greats mentioned at the beginning of this article, Coach Dad leaves behind a legacy that's firmly intact. And when his time in Pittsburgh is looked back on years from now, his final, mediocre years will be forgotten, and the dominant ones will take center stage.

Dick LeBeau wasn't just a popular defensive coordinator. He may have been the most popular and beloved assistant coach in the history of Pittsburgh sports.

This is a man who, during his Hall of Fame speech in 2010, had the entire Steelers team in the stands--the head coach, the offense and the defense--and they waved Terrible Towels and cheered him on like regular old NFL fans.

This is a man who was so beloved and respected by his players, they donned his old Lions' No. 44 jersey countless times.

This is a man who exposed the soft underbelly of the menacing and intimidating James Harrison, who once got emotional on national television when talking about his relationship with LeBeau.

Much like the defensive rankings and the innovative schemes,  the respect and admiration for Dick LeBeau will be a part of his legacy that will continue to grow as time marches on.