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It probably wasn't what new defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had in mind when he instructed his players to apply more pressure, but he had to like the effort he saw during a blitz-pickup drill in training camp. Linebacker Joey Porter made a nifty move to evade the block of running back Duce Staley and took down coach Bill Cowher, standing in at quarterback, with a swift two-hand shove to the back. Cowher was uninjured, if a little surprised, and vowed it would be Porter's "last sack." For his part, Porter jokingly said later, "If you're going to play the quarterback, the quarterback gets tackled."
Though it was only a drill, Steelers fans hope it is a harbinger of blitzes to come. After a 6-10 season in which its once-feared defense was tied for 17th in the league in sacks and set a dubious franchise record by forcing only 25 turnovers, Pittsburgh has retooled in hopes of returning to its smashmouth roots. To this end, the most important off-season signing was not a player but rather LeBeau.
During his first stint with the team, from 1992 through '96, first as defensive backs coach and then as coordinator, LeBeau was the architect of the Blitzburgh defenses. He originated the zone blitz--in which a lineman drops into coverage and into the area usually occupied by a blitzing teammate--and oversaw a unit that racked up 51 sacks in his last season. In '97 he left for Cincinnati, where he was defensive coordinator and then coach for three seasons each. He spent 2003 as the Bills' assistant head coach. Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Cowher became disenchanted with the passive defensive schemes of coordinator Tim Lewis, fired him after the season and called LeBeau last January, asking him to come back. Within a week LeBeau was holed up in a Steelers office watching game tape in preparation for this season.
The team welcomed him back enthusiastically. "When he speaks, I listen, because when something comes out of his mouth, it's like the gospel truth," says defensive line coach John Mitchell.
"I love him," says lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen, who led the team with eight sacks last year. "He brings out the best in you."
All the good feeling doesn't necessarily translate into big stops on third down, however. As good a tactician as LeBeau is, he doesn't have anywhere near the horses he did in his first go-round with Pittsburgh. At that time the Steelers boasted a squadron of " Hawaii guys" (LeBeau's term for Pro Bowl players), including Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd. This unit is mostly unproven and inexperienced, the result of an off-season purge, including the departure of linebacker Jason Gildon and five notable veterans. (Also, eight coaches were replaced or assigned different responsibilities.) Two starters from last year's suspect secondary--Brent Alexander and Dewayne Washington--are gone. Nickelback Deshea Townsend steps in at corner, and Troy Polamalu, the team's first-round draft choice in 2003, takes over at strong safety.
The strength of the defense will, as always, be the linebackers. James Farrior led the team with 137 tackles last season and has good speed. Kendrell Bell has dropped the 20 pounds he put on last year in a failed experiment, and LeBeau plans to use him in nickel coverage to take advantage of his speed. A healthy Porter, who was frustrated by the team's lack of aggressiveness last season, will be the centerpiece of the blitz schemes. He estimates he was only at 70% capability last season while recovering from an early September gunshot wound. He was noticeably slower, and his numbers (66 tackles, five sacks) were down from his Pro Bowl season in 2002, when he had 89 tackles and nine sacks.
LeBeau will continue to run a basic 3--4 but with new pressure schemes and a mix of formations. "We'll play three linemen, four linemen, might even put five linemen in there sometimes," he says. "We'll have one 'backer, two 'backers, three 'backers. I don't want the opponent to know what they're going to get every third down."
Even if the defense improves markedly, the Steelers will have a tough time making the playoffs. Still, the retro makeover, which is reflected on the offensive side by a renewed emphasis on the power running game, is a step in the right direction. As wideout Plaxico Burress says, "If we can get back to who we used to be, we'll be a force." --C.B.